Worry in Wales as exodus takes shine off Triple Crown
You win some, you lose some. Wales, realistic Grand Slam candidates following last weekend's narrow squeak over England, had the second part of a glorious double whammy confirmed yesterday when the International Rugby Board published its new world rankings.
Ireland remain unchanged in eighth but Warren Gatland's side are up to fifth at the expense of England, who drop to sixth. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Wales will be a top-four nation by the start of next season.
Yet they may be a top-four nation with minimal control over their leading players. World Cup hooker Huw Bennett (pictured) announced yesterday he will leave the Ospreys at the end of the season, after agreeing terms with Lyon.
With a number of leading players -- scrum-half Mike Phillips and back James Hook among them -- already across the water and a number of others, including outstanding forwards Gethin Jenkins and Luke Charteris, about to join them, the Red Dragon migration is well and truly under way.
Gatland is alarmed, for good reasons: while IRB regulations guarantee player release during international windows, Wales have taken to playing Tests outside those periods and for such matches they do not necessarily have access to personnel based in France.
"I don't know what the answer is," the coach said recently. "It's difficult to compete with the money being offered overseas, given the financial pressures on our regional sides. We would love the players to stay here and that we will do everything we can to try to keep them. But they have a very short career at this level."
England, who announced a 32-man squad for training ahead of the game with France in Paris a week on Sunday, have issues of their own following publication of the rankings.
They must return to the top four by the end of this year if they are to begin the home World Cup in 2015 as a seeded team.
Failure to do so would leave them at serious risk of sharing a pool with one of the southern-hemisphere powers.
Italy, meanwhile, are hoping to address their chronic goal-kicking problems by restoring the long-serving Mirco Bergamasco to their back division in Wales in 11 days' time. Bergamasco has been struggling with shoulder problems since the World Cup, but such are the Azzurri's issues on the marksmanship front that he is under consideration for an immediate return.
So too is prop Martin Castrogiovanni, back in the squad little over a fortnight after cracking a rib in the defeat by England. (© Independent News Service)