Wales will be without their three England-based players, including their current top two scrum-halves, for their final autumn international against Australia at the Millennium Stadium on November 29. Premier Rugby has insisted on Gloucester's Gareth Cooper and the Sale duo of Dwayne Peel and the prop Eifion Roberts returning to their clubs immediately after the November 22 meeting with the All Blacks. As the Australia match is Wales's fourth international of the month, the International Rugby Board's regulation on player release does not apply.
The Welsh Rugby Union has reached a financial settlement with its four regions for the release of players for a match which is currently 1,500 short of a sell-out on an afternoon which will be worth some £5m to the governing body. The regions will be receiving £100,000 each, but Premier Rugby is not interested in a financial settlement as the two clubs involved want their players for league matches: Sale entertain Leicester on November 28, while Gloucester face Northampton the following day.
It will leave Wales short on scrum-halves for the clash with the Wallabies. Mike Phillips, who played a leading role in last season's grand slam success, is injured, leaving Peel and Copper battling it out for pole position. The third scrum-half in the current squad is Martin Roberts, the uncapped Scarlet.
Wales name their side on Tuesday for the first of their autumn internationals against South Africa at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Gavin Henson, who has started three matches for the Ospreys since recovering from ankle surgery, is likely to be paired with the burly Jamie Roberts in the midfield. Wales had been considering playing Henson at outside-centre and Roberts inside, but Henson is keen to remain at second five-eighth. It would mean Roberts playing in his fourth position in as many internationals after making his debut against Scotland last February on the wing. He appeared at full-back and then inside-centre in the two summer Tests against South Africa.
The major dilemma for the Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, is who to play at outside-half - James Hook or Stephen Jones. The pair tended to alternate in the Six Nations and the defence coach Shaun Edwards believes the contrasting duo give Wales the best of both worlds with Hook adept at exploiting space and Jones one of the best controllers in Europe. "We are fortunate to have two very talented players in that position," said Edwards. "I believe that one of the reasons we were so successful in the Six Nations was the strength we had on the bench and the input made my players who came on, especially in the outside-half position."
Two players from Cardiff Blues, who at the start of the season appeared to be nowhere near a full cap, are in line to make their debuts: the 19-year old wing, Leigh Halfpenny, and the No 8, Andy Powell. Mark Jones's knee injury is likely to rule him out, opening the way for Halfpenny, who showed his pace, strength and awareness against Gloucester and Leicester last month, while Powell was a benchman for the Blues before an injury to the regions' No8, Xavier Rush, gave him an opportunity. Wales are without two of their grand slam back rowers, Gareth Delve and Jonathan Thomas, through injury and if Powell is picked, it would mean Ryan Jones moving to blind-side flanker.
"This is a big month for us," said Edwards. "We are taking a step up from the Six Nations by facing the three top sides in the southern hemisphere. History may be against us [Wales have won only two of their last 39 internationals combined against South Africa, New Zealand and Australia], but that will not enter the minds of the players and they will relish the chance to pitch themselves against the best."