It is one of the peculiar ironies of front-row life that Alex Corbisiero, the best loose-head prop in England, will not be facing the All Blacks in New Zealand next month even though he is fully fit, while Dylan Hartley, the best hooker in England, has a realistic chance of squaring up to the reigning world champions despite the fact that he isn’t.
If the situation makes perfect sense to Northampton, who are in the happy position of having both forwards on their books, the rest of us remain just a little befuddled.
Hartley, who has been out of action since suffering a self-inflicted shoulder injury during the Premiership derby defeat by Leicester in late March, trained with the Saints squad on Wednesday and may play a part in this weekend’s Premiership final with Saracens at Twickenham.
The final call rests with the Franklin’s Gardens medical team, who will decide one way or another tomorrow morning, and if they give their club captain the thumbs-up he craves, he will certainly be on an Auckland-bound flight early next week.
But here’s the funny bit: even if he misses out on Saturday’s showpiece occasion, he is still a hot tip to make the long trip to All Black country.
“Dylan’s shoulder keeps improving: in training, we’ve seen him tackle and hit rucks and do his line-out throwing,” said Jim Mallinder, the Northampton rugby director. “It’s still touch and go whether we pick him for the final, but if we choose not to risk him, there will still be a very good chance of him being fit for two Tests in New Zealand. That’s how close he is to fitness.
“Dylan is an outstanding player, one of the best hookers around, and we know what he does for our squad. We have to balance the fact that he desperately wants to play in this game against what is good for his health.
“Our medics are testing him every day and they’re talking about a strength deficit in his shoulder. But he’s making progress all the time and if you asked him, he’d say he was fit to do a job for us.”
Corbisiero’s position is radically different. Laid up for most of the season with the latest in a long line of serious knee injuries, the Lions scrummager’s return late in the campaign has been a striking success – not least in the European Challenge Cup final against Bath eight days ago, when he wrecked the West Country set-piece with a display as explosive as it was technically proficient.
Given the Old Mother Hubbardish state of England’s loose-head supply – Mako Vunipola of Saracens is on crutches, Joe Marler of Harlequins has a hip injury and the back-up players selected for New Zealand have next to no experience of international rugby – the red rose coach Stuart Lancaster must have been sorely tempted to include Corbisiero in his tour party.
But Lancaster, mindful of the player’s grisly history of orthopaedic trauma, has opted to grant him a full summer’s rest ahead of next year’s home World Cup.
Mallinder is fully supportive of this approach. “On the face of it, Alex is right back to fitness,” he said. “What we have to weigh up between us – Stuart and myself, the England medics and our medics – is what is right for him in the long term.
“He’s not in any pain now, he’s running freely and he’s confident in himself, but no one can say the knee problems will never reoccur. He’ll always need careful managing and the best thing for him now is to go on holiday after this final and then embark on the reconditioning programme we’ll have waiting for him on his return. We want him to be as fit as he can be for next season, which is clearly a very important one.”
The Challenge Cup final was a bruising affair, but all Northampton’s front-line players emerged in one piece, including the guaranteed England tourists Luther Burrell, Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood.
The Midlanders have played some quality rugby since the season began nine long months ago, but in light of their overtly physical style, it can be fairly said that the conditioning staff have performed even better.
Saracens, who are significantly more beaten up as a result of last weekend’s rugged Heineken Cup decider with Toulon, have signed the outsized Scotland lock Jim Hamilton and the high-calibre Argentine prop Juan Figallo for next season.
They will replace, in body if not in spirit, two England forwards: Steve Borthwick, the captain, who retires after this weekend’s business at Twickenham; and Matt Stevens, who is returning to his native South Africa to play Super 15 rugby for the Durban-based Sharks. Mike Ellery, the England seven-a-side wing, has also agreed terms with the Londoners.