England’s path to Cardiff for the Six Nations opener with a fully loaded Wales a week on Friday is beginning to look disturbingly like a long road to nowhere.
Three highly experienced red-rose internationals – the Saracens centre Brad Barritt, the Leicester lock Geoff Parling and the Northampton flanker Tom Wood – were either ruled out of the Millennium Stadium contest or given something less than a snowball’s chance in hell of recovering fitness in time to participate. It was the bleakest of fitness bulletins.
To make matters still worse following previous torrents of bad news concerning such luminaries as Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Ben Morgan, the in-form Bath midfielder Kyle Eastmond was added to the list of all-but-certain absentees.
Eastmond’s shoulder problems were a cause for concern before his club’s European Champions Cup meeting with Glasgow on Sunday and, when he broke down just five minutes into that match, the alarm bells had started ringing loud and clear.
“Like Tom Wood with his ankle issue, Kyle needs a second scan and has returned home to the West Country to get one,” the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, said at yesterday’s formal Six Nations launch in London. “Sometimes, the initial scans don’t give a completely accurate picture: injuries often need to settle down for 72 hours or so before the precise extent of the problem is revealed.
“Tom is in an orthopaedic boot and will stay in it until we know the situation,” Lancaster added. “Kyle won’t train until next week at the earliest. The clock is ticking, clearly.”
Lancaster did not admit to feeling downbeat about England’s prospects at a forbidding venue that now ranks among their least favourite in the whole of rugby, but he acknowledged that he was answering questions about the injury fallout “through gritted teeth” and agreed that his leadership group had been badly hit. While another of his senior players, the Leicester tight-head prop Dan Cole, is close to returning after long-term neck problems and a short-term foot problem, he said selection remained in a state of flux, particularly in the back division.
With Farrell off-limits for the entire tournament after straining a knee ligament while playing for Saracens in central France last weekend, the England coaches were hoping against hope that Barritt’s own knee problems would be a quick fix. To lose one defensive go-to man a few days before squaring up to the most physically powerful of the Six Nations contenders was quite worrying enough, without forfeiting the services of the bravest, most reliable tackler in the squad.
Unfortunately for Lancaster, the South African-born midfielder will not be available to him. “We’re hoping he’ll back in Italy week,” the coach said, referring to the second match of the Six Nations series at Twickenham on 14 February.
“For the Wales game, we do at least have options. Jonathan Joseph is playing really well at Bath, while we have both Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell in the squad. They were the centres when we beat the Welsh last season; indeed, they played through the tournament.”
Wood’s misfortune means that Tom Croft, a Lions Test flanker from Leicester whose own career has been blighted by injury, is in the mix for a place in the 23-man squad for Cardiff tomorrow week, even though he has played precious little top-level club rugby of late.
As for the second-row department, ravaged by the injuries to Launchbury and Lawes and further weakened by Parling’s knee problems, a change of personnel is inevitable. George Kruis of Saracens, capped during the autumn games but yet to start an international match, is favourite to join Dave Attwood of Bath in the boilerhouse of the scrum.Reuse content