England have been praying for good news on the injury front for much of the summer, with precious little in the way of a response from on high.
But yesterday it was Argentina, their opening World Cup opponents, that received a blow with news that Juan Martin Hernandez, the Maradona of rugby, had failed to recover from a bad knee injury – far worse than the one currently affecting the threatened red-rose captain Lewis Moody – in time to make the squad.
Hernandez, a spellbindingly good full-back whose performances in the outside-half position helped the Pumas to an applecart-upsetting third place at the last tournament in 2007, should now be at the peak of his powers. Unfortunately for the South Americans, who meet England in Dunedin on 10 September, the ligament damage he suffered while playing for Racing Metro in March has yet to clear up. "The loss of his qualities as a player and a person is important," admitted the coach, Santiago Phelan.
If the news from Buenos Aires put a spring in Johnson's step, the England manager will be even happier if the likes of Mike Tindall and Steve Thompson, first-choice members of the Webb Ellis Trophy-winning side of 2003, can convince him of their continuing value by turning in quality performances against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. Neither was involved in the tight victory over the same opposition at Twickenham last weekend, and each faces challenges on the selection front.
"I think I can win the shirt back," Thompson said, "but I suppose we all think like that. It's the strength of the squad, which is more competitive now than it has been in a long while."
Wales, meanwhile, are prepared to take two of their own long-serving front-rowers to the World Cup, even if they miss the entire warm-up programme through injury. The hooker Matthew Rees, who has been captaining the side of late, and the loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins are finding it frustratingly difficult to shake off their orthopaedic niggles – neck problems in the case of Rees; toe and calf issues in the case of Jenkins – and there is little likelihood of either man featuring at the Millennium Stadium.
Even so, their flights to New Zealand appear to have been booked. "There are players who warrant a certain amount of looking at how important they've been to us in the past, they fall into that category," said the forwards coach Robin McBryde.Reuse content