Pertemps Bees' head coach Steve Williams last night said that Casey Dunning could be out for the rest of the season and that the Canadian international faces a race to prove his fitness ahead of next year's World Cup.
The front-row forward, who is midway through a one-year contract with the National One outfit, suffered a broken ankle in Saturday's loss to Sedgley Park and is left contemplating a second lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Dunning was only a couple of matches into his comeback after damaging ligaments in the derby win over Moseley — more than two months ago — when he was forced from the field with this latest problem.
He is still in hospital and is likely to be in plaster for the next six weeks after which he will begin a long rehabilitation programme.
Williams concedes that Bees may have to play the rest of an increasingly troubled campaign without their starting loosehead. "It is quite unlikely that he will play again this season," he said. "He has been really unlucky in that he has had two serious injuries but it must be said although they are both ankle injuries, they are totally different — there is no single weakness.
"How quickly we get him back depends on his rehab. There is a very outside chance that he could get some rugby this season, but you have to feel very sorry for the bloke.
"He was more gutted than hurt on Saturday. He has made a big commitment coming over here from Canada and he's the sort of guy we want to keep for several more years."
Williams confirmed that the club would honour the remainder of Dunning's deal and that they would be interested in retaining him for 2007-8.
But first, there is the sizeable issue of the World Cup. Dunning has made five appearances for his country and although he was not involved in their recent fixtures in Italy and France, he was effectively next in line.
"He was non-travelling first reserve," Williams said. "The World Cup has been his focus, he has been working very hard towards it — that was his dream.
"He will be fit in time but he has got his rehab to do and he'll have to see how it affects his opportunities."
If the 26-year-old does not play again this season, that would give him little time in which to prove his fitness and form to the Canadian selectors. The Canucks have a friendly against the All Blacks in June and begin their World Cup challenge against Wales on September 9.
Dunning's absence leaves Bees short of options in the front row. Tongan prop Hotili Asi has returned to New Zealand after his holiday visa expired, leaving Matt Long, Terry Sigley and Emyr Lewis as the only available props for the Boxing Day match with Coventry.
Although Williams hopes to add to his squad, he is not optimistic: "There is no money," the Welshman said. "It's just one of those situations where you have to get on with what you have got. You go into most matches with just one propping replacement, anyway."
Winger Adam Billig sustained a rib injury against Sedgley Park and will require a fitness test before Bees finalise their side for the derby.