Oh to be an All Black selector. The all-conquering New Zealanders suffered what should have been two debilitating injury setbacks yesterday when Sean Fitzpatrick, their talismanic captain, and Craig Dowd, his front row sidekick from Auckland, called in sick. Fitzpatrick, who has struggled all tour with a knee condition, misses this weekend's finale with England while Dowd's dodgy hamstring will almost certainly prevent him starting the game. Did the bad tidings cost John Hart, the coach, a single moment's shut-eye? Of course not.
Hart simply reconfirmed Norm Hewitt as Fitzy's replacement - the aggressive Southlander has punched his considerable weight in all three Tests so far - and named Anton Oliver, probably one of the best half-dozen hookers in world rugby, on the bench. Meanwhile, Mark Allen, the formidable Manawatu Bull, was bracketed with the doubtful Dowd in the loose-head position.
Clive Woodward and his England selection panel are not quite so comfortably off, particularly in the creative areas. Nick Greenstock, a try-scorer against the Springboks six days ago, dislocated a shoulder joint during training on Tuesday night and joins three other prized members of the midfield fraternity - Alex King, Mike Catt and Jeremy Guscott - among the walking wounded. Woodward is hoping against hope that Phil de Glanville, the former national captain, recovers from his ankle trouble in time to confront the Blacks. If he fails, Matt Perry is likely to move to outside centre with Tim Stimpson, called into the squad yesterday, filling the hole at full-back.
Stimpson may feature anyway, in the unfamiliar position of wing. England's decision to dispense with the services of the Lion of Cleckheaton, better known as John Bentley, after 64 unusually anonymous minutes against the South Africans, is understandable. However, a strange reluctance to recall Adedayo Adebayo of Bath to the fray leaves the selectors badly exposed in both wing positions.
David Rees, three caps into his Test career, is certain to fill one of them, with Austin Healey, England's first-choice scrum-half as recently as last spring, a marginal favourite to join him in the firing line. Both men enjoy a tackle but they would have to stand on each other's shoulders just to establish a nodding acquaintance with Jonah Lomu's navel. Woodward has taken a gamble or two already this season, but this would be something else again.
Two of England's back-row contingent, Neil Back and Chris Sheasby, were also carrying minor injuries yesterday and while both were expected to pass imminent fitness tests, Woodward sensibly opted to delay naming his side until lunchtime today. It was left to Lawrence Dallaglio, the captain, to sound an upbeat note.
"People have described this series against the southern hemisphere nations as suicidal, but it's been the best thing that could have happened to us," he said. "Yes, it's been a painful process - the supporters want victories and so do we and it's difficult to find much to cheer about when we lose 29-11, as we did against the Boks last weekend - but it's a beneficial process, too. We have to go through this; the alternative is to cover over the cracks, as we did in '93 when we beat the All Blacks with five penalties. They went away and revolutionised their rugby while we sat back, thinking everything was hunky-dory when it obviously wasn't. By playing these games, we're putting ourselves in a better position to become the best.''
NEW ZEALAND TEAM (v England in Test at Twickenham on Saturday): C Cullen; J Wilson, F Bunce, W Little, J Lomu; A Mehrtens, J Marshall; M Allen or C Dowd, N Hewitt, O Brown, I Jones, R Brooke, T Randell, J Kronfeld, Z Brooke. Replacements: A Oliver, C Riechelman, M Allen or C Barrell, J Preston or M Robinson, C Spencer, S McLeod.Reuse content