The Gods of rugby have been seriously reluctant to bestow Grand Slam glory on England in recent years, and Clive Woodward is not getting a fat lot of help from the heavens on this occasion, either. Having already lost his captain, the peerless Martin Johnson, for this weekend's climactic meeting with Ireland in Dublin, the red rose manager suffered a further setback yesterday when Phil Vickery, the tight head prop from Gloucester, declared himself hors de combat after suffering a knee injury during the Premiership victory over Harlequins on Saturday.
Worryingly for the England hierarchy, that double-whammy quickly became a triple-whammy when they learned that Julian White of Bristol, the second-string tight head, was also suffering from a knee problem serious enough to have prevented him playing at Newcastle on Sunday. With Lawrence Dallaglio on the long-term injury list and Martin Corry, his understudy at No 8, struggling with a dodgy hamstring, the formidable England pack suddenly looks badly frayed around the edges.
Vickery has not yet been ruled out, but the Test Lion did not cross the Irish Sea with the rest of the 31-man squad yesterday. "I cannot say it's looking good," he said after having his knee scanned. "I was in agony on Sunday, and the pain worsened as the day went on. As far as Dublin is concerned, I can't really see me being there." White, who did travel with the England party, has more chance of making the cut, but even if both miss out, Woodward has options. He could either recall the 35-year-old Leicester prop Darren Garforth from the back end of beyond – the "Baron" won the last of his 25 caps in Rome 19 months ago – or shift Jason Leonard from the left side of the front row to the right and restore the in-form Graham Rowntree to the mix.
One urgent matter was cleared up yesterday. Matt Dawson, the Northampton scrum-half, was confirmed as captain in the absence of Johnson – an uncomfortable irony, given that Dawson led England in their last Grand Slam outing, the shambolic defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield in April of last year. The news raised as many questions as it answered, however. Austin Healey, by common consent the form back in England, had been pushing Dawson for the No 9 shirt. It is now unclear where Healey will start the game, if he starts at all.
Dawson's second-in-command will be Neil Back, the Leicester flanker, who has long been an influential voice in the side. With the likes of Back, Leonard and Richard Hill in the pack, England have enough old heads to compensate for the missing Johnson. But there is no escaping the fact that Woodward, who finalises his side today, has been struggling with an unusually large number of personnel issues – at full-back, wing, and in all three rows of the scrum.
Ireland, meanwhile, are likely to stick with the combination responsible for Saturday's record Six Nations victory over Wales in Cardiff. The Munster flanker David Wallace, quite outstanding at the Millennium Stadium, did not train yesterday, but is likely to recover from a bruised shoulder in good time for this weekend's hostilities. David Humphreys also missed the session. The Ulster outside-half was granted leave to attend a funeral.
In Scotland, the national selectors were dealt a heavy blow yesterday when Bryan Redpath, their first-choice scrum-half, was ruled out of the autumn Tests with Tonga, Argentina and New Zealand. Redpath is about to undergo a hernia operation, and will not play again until December. Seven other Scots sat out yesterday's squad session at Murrayfield: the full-back Glenn Metcalfe and half a dozen forwards – Robbie Russell, George Graham, Scott Murray, Stuart Grimes, Gordon Simpson and Jon Petrie.Reuse content