Newcastle’s Kalyn Ponga has reportedly been offered a four-year $4.5 million NRL contract extension that includes an option to play at the Rugby World Cup.
As Warren Gatland named his Wales rugby side to face the All Blacks, the local paper was putting on its bravest face. A large official team photo formed the centrefold of Cardiff’s Western Mail, below the headline: “Are these the men to end 56 years of hurt?”
Having won three of their first four Tests against the All Blacks, the legendary losing streak now stretches 20 Tests since their 13-8 victory in Cardiff in 1953.
Gatland issued his best rallying cry at the weekend with a regurgitation of that well-worn statement of the obvious, that the All Blacks have lost their aura of invincibility from his playing days.
But in Welsh rugby heartland, there appears hope rather than bullishness. Local television news referred in near hushed tones to the All Blacks’ “mental hold” on the Welsh side.
Gatland observed in his Wales On Sunday interview that his Lions players returned from South Africa with plenty of self-belief, and the confidence of having led the All Blacks after 50 minutes a year ago — the visitors went on to win 29-9. There was also the 26-25 close call five years ago here.
The coach confirmed his lineup, more than 48 hours before the All Blacks reveal theirs with ever-increasing confidence Daniel Carter (calf) will be passed fit.
There were few surprises, with the injury absences of key halfback Mike Phillips, fullback Lee Byrne and winger Mark Jones, while another No 9 Dwayne Peel wasn’t released by his Sale Sharks club.
Gareth Cooper will wear No 9 and combine with veteran pivot Stephen Jones, while regular five-eighth James Hook was shuffled to fullback.
The biggest talking point was at tighthead prop where 27-year-old Paul James will be tasked with anchoring the scrum in his second test, six years after he debuted against Romania.
He will likely oppose one-test All Blacks prop Wyatt Crockett who is the frontrunner to step in for Tony Woodcock who sits out a one-match ban for striking George Smith during their 32-19 win over the Wallabies in Tokyo.
The versatile James got the nod ahead of Duncan Jones and Craig Mitchell to pack down in a front row alongside Lions Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees at hooker.
“We’ve been quite happy with the way he’s scrummaged at tighthead and he trained well last week,” Gatland said.
“We discussed the possibility of moving Gethin to tighthead but we feel he’s one of the best looseheads in world rugby and we wanted to keep him in that position.
Wales’ 2008 grand slam-winning captain Ryan Jones, at No 8, will skipper a side containing other Lions players such as winger Shane Williams, second five-eighth Jamie Roberts, Stephen Jones and flanker Martyn Williams.
The All Blacks meanwhile took it easy on their first full day in Cardiff after the 12-1/2 hour flight from Tokyo.
Carter – whose photo adorned the Western Mail’s front page – did bike work today and will be on light duties for much of the week, but the feeling was he would overcome the haematoma in his calf muscle.