Depleted Wales’ difficult build-up to their Autumn Nations Series opener against New Zealand has shown no sign of abating after another key player was ruled out.
Barely 30 minutes after the team was officially announced for Saturday’s clash, Wales head coach Wayne Pivac revealed British and Irish Lions forward Ken Owens had failed a fitness test.
Owens, sidelined by a back problem that will require a scan, has been replaced in the starting line-up by his fellow Scarlets hooker Ryan Elias, with uncapped Cardiff player Kirby Myhill providing bench cover.
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With the Principality Stadium encounter falling outside World Rugby’s autumn international window, Wales are without England-based players like Dan Biggar, Taulupe Faletau and Louis Rees-Zammit because they have not been released by their clubs.
A number of key personnel are absent through injuries, with Lions such as Owens, George North, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric all out, while centre Willis Halaholo is isolating after testing positive for coronavirus and Liam Williams is recovering from appendix surgery.
The total list of absentees runs comfortably into double figures, providing a challenging scenario as Wales face an opponent they last beat in 1953, losing all 31 subsequent Tests against them, including 16 at home.
Pivac said: “It’s a big blow to lose any player that you have initially selected. We have selected a certain side and trained a certain way. It is a disruption, but it’s a massive chance for Ryan.
“Ken has got a back problem. We rested him from training on Tuesday, and we asked him to do a couple of things this morning. We checked him again just after lunch, and the decision was made that he won’t be right and we won’t risk him.”
On a plus side for Pivac, Gareth Anscombe will make his first Wales appearance for more than two years and there is a full international debut for 21-year-old Dragons flanker Taine Basham.
Ospreys fly-half Anscombe, who was born in New Zealand and qualifies for Wales via his mother, suffered a major knee injury during Wales’ World Cup warm-up game against England in August 2019.
Anscombe, who has won 27 caps, returned to action last month and has started three Ospreys matches in the United Rugby Championship.
On the bench, Cardiff’s former Bath fly-half Rhys Priestland is called up after an absence of four years.
“In terms of Gareth and Rhys, the two 10s we have, we think Gareth starting and Rhys finishing is the way we want to go for this match,” Pivac added.
“Clearly, Gareth has been out of the game for a long time. We just think Gareth coming back from an injury, the full-match warm-up and then straight into the match starting is the best way to do it.
“For two years we’ve been down to play New Zealand, but haven’t been able to do so, so there is a feeling of excitement and let us loose. (Playing in front of a crowd of) 75,000 people, we haven’t done that for a long time.”
Asked about Wales being written off ahead of Saturday’s encounter, Pivac said: “We see it in sport all the time. I could rattle off upsets here – James ‘Buster’ Douglas and Mike Tyson.
“Every now and then, you get a massive upset, but we are not looking at it like that, we are focusing on the game we put out there.
“The guys I am talking to in camp the last few days, the opponent they would pick to play is New Zealand.
“It has been a difficult build-up, but challenges bring out the best of people, and hopefully that will happen on the weekend.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones, who has also played in 12 Tests for the British and Irish Lions, wins his 149th Wales cap on Saturday to overtake former New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw’s total for one country.
And Pivac added: “The biggest thing I would say about Al is the sacrifice that he makes and the professionalism he brings to each training session.
“He is the ultimate professional. He is such a great role model for others in the group.
“It’s fantastic he is going to go one more than Richie McCaw, but typically for Al, it’s not about him, but the team coming together and having a great performance.”