Andrew faces tricky equation at No 8 after injury rules out Easter
Monday 09 June 2008
Nick Easter, the first-choice England No 8 who captained the side against the Barbarians at Twickenham last weekend, will miss the forthcoming Test series with the All Blacks because of a fractured right hand. Easter suffered the injury during the Baa-Baas game – presumably during the natural run of play, rather than in the pantomime sparring arranged for the crowd's benefit in the early stages of the fixture – but the red rose medics were confident he would play a part against the All Blacks. That confidence was misplaced.
While the Harlequins forward was flying back to Heathrow on the first available flight – further checks on his hand yesterday showed little in the way of improvement – the acting team manager and head coach, Rob Andrew, was weighing up his options ahead of this weekend's opening contest at Eden Park. He has plenty of cover: two Wasps players, James Haskell and Joe Worsley, have experience of the No 8 role, as does Luke Narraway of Gloucester, who performed there during this year's Six Nations Championship. As a consequence, Andrew decided against summoning a replacement from the second-string Saxons squad which is currently playing Churchill Cup rugby in Canada.
He has a problem, though. Haskell has played his international rugby on the blind-side flank while Worsley is no longer a member of the Wasps starting XV. Narraway, meanwhile, found himself displaced by the Welsh Test player Gareth Delve for his club's big games at the end of the club campaign. Easter may not be everyone's cup of tea – indeed, even he struggled to command a place in the Quins back row last season, thanks to the brilliant form of the newcomer Tom Guest – but he knows what it is to perform on the biggest stage, having started all the World Cup games that mattered in France last autumn.
Happily, the news on Olly Barkley was more positive. The Gloucester-bound midfielder missed England's early training runs because of bruising to the right thigh, but he played a full part in yesterday's preparatory business at the Takapuna club and is expected to be fit for selection. Barkley is one of the form players in England, and his presence at either outside-half or inside centre will be vital, even if he fills one of those positions off the bench at Eden Park.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks have given up on John Afoa, the Auckland tight-head prop who picked up a knee injury during the hard-won victory over Ireland in Wellington on Saturday. Afoa has been diagnosed as suffering from damaged medial ligaments and will be incapacitated for a month.
Graham Henry, the New Zealand head coach, hopes to be in a position to consider his most experienced front-row player, the Canterbury prop Greg Somerville, for this weekend's game. Somerville, who made his Test debut eight years ago and has 57 caps to his name, has been struggling for fitness, but signalled at the weekend that he was ready for a another tour of duty at the sharp end of the set piece. Even so, Henry took the precaution of calling up another Canterbury prop, the uncapped Ben Franks, as cover.
The All Blacks are not particularly blessed with heavy scrummagers at present, with Tony Woodcock on the casualty list and Carl Hayman busily earning his Premiership fortune with Newcastle, so England would very much like to see Franks on the field on Saturday. New Zealand may have dominated the scrums against Ireland, but the red rose pairing of Andrew Sheridan and Matt Stevens are a very different kettle of fish to the Munster pairing of Marcus Horan and John Hayes.
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