It would be quite wrong to suggest that Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, was anything other than disappointed when he lost two of his more reliable players, the ultra-athletic Leicester flanker Tom Croft and the tough-as-old-boots Saracens centre Brad Barritt, to long-term injury earlier this month, but he could at least rest easy in the knowledge that he had been spared a couple of wickedly difficult selection decisions. That was then. The news that Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, has run out of alley for the time being leaves the red-rose hierarchy in a rare old mess.
Suddenly, there is a filthy great hole – a Manu-sized hole - in the national team’s back division, in a position notoriously difficult to fill. Tuilagi has been England’s first-choice outside centre since the last World Cup in 2011 and is widely expected to stay that way through to the next World Cup in 2015, especially with a footballer as gifted as Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester doing his thinking for him in the inside position. Barritt, happy in either role, is seen as the obvious back-up at No 13. Or rather, he was.
Now that both of them are out of the November meetings against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand – Tuilagi with a torn chest muscle, Barritt with a serious ankle problem – a thick fog has descended over the clear road ahead. The other centre in the senior squad, Kyle Eastmond of Bath, has precious little experience of life at outside centre, and he is injured anyway. Of the No 13s in the second-string Saxons party, Jonathan Joseph of Bath is not quite as highly thought of as he was 15 months ago, while Joel Tomkins of Saracens is uncapped.
Tuilagi performed at something like his destructive best in Leicester’s comprehensive victory over Newcastle at Welford Road last weekend, but the Samoan-born midfielder ended the game in pain. “He went for a wide-out tackle with his arm outstretched late in the match and picked up a chest injury,” reported the Premiership champions’ rugby director Richard Cockerill.
“The suspicion is that he tore his pectoral muscle, although we won’t know the full extent of the damage until the tests have been completed. It’s pretty frustrating, whatever it is. He’s just back from an enforced lay-off after the Lions tour and he’s been raring to go. You could see that from the things he did to Newcastle at the weekend.
“At the moment, it’s a lay-off of six to eight weeks at best. If it’s a severe tear, he’ll need surgery and be out for months; if it’s not severe, it will heal on its own in a shorter period of time. But he’s unlikely to be fit for any of the autumn internationals. We’ll probably get him right for December and then see him leave us for the Six Nations, the b*****d.”
Cockerill used the B-word as a term of endearment, a jocular acknowledgement of Tuilagi’s importance to the Leicester cause. But the boss may not see the funny side for long, for he now has major issues on the personnel front. Croft’s knee injury is likely to incapacitate him for the entire campaign, while the Argentine wing Gonzalo Camacho will not play this year because of a busted shoulder. Meanwhile, the full-back Mathew Tait is not expected to reach full fitness for another three weeks following surgery on a damaged ankle. “Any more injuries among the outside backs will reduce us to the bare bones,” Cockerill admitted.
Tait was used and abused by more than one national coach during his frustrating career as a centre, yet had he still been playing in the position, he would have been the obvious solution to Lancaster’s conundrum. He did, after all, show signs of being the best red-rose No 13 since Jeremy Guscott. But he is committed to the No 15 role now – with a little luck, he will play a full part at the global gathering in two years’ time – and is no longer a contender for the England midfield.
At this stage, it seems Joseph and Tomkins will scrap it out between them when preparations begin in earnest for the important match with the Wallabies. Joseph is the man with an international CV, albeit a brief one, while Tomkins is the man with the force behind him. His performance last time out, for Saracens against Gloucester 10 days ago, was very impressive indeed.
At the end of last year’s Six Nations, when England saw their Grand Slam credentials cruelly exposed by the rampant Welsh, it was generally accepted that the Barritt-Tuilagi axis had run its course and that Twelvetrees, armed with passing and kicking games vastly superior to either of the incumbents, would have to be incorporated into a one-dimensional midfield. Lancaster has clearly been thinking along those lines. He did not, however, imagine a change on this scale.
New challengers for the unlucky 13 spot...
The 22-year-old is in his first season at Bath, having switched from London Irish. Travelled to South Africa with England as a rookie last year and performed well against the Springboks, but then saw his form fall away. Blessed with a classical outside break, but is he up to it physically?
Saracens signed him from Wigan in 2011, believing they could mould him into a Test-class centre. They may have been right. The 26-year-old from Warrington may not be as celebrated as his younger brother Sam, who stayed in rugby league, but with his aggressive defence and fast-developing attacking game, he could close the gap.