Stuart Lancaster believes England have a ready-made replacement for the stricken Joe Launchbury in the slimmed-down, increasingly mobile form of Dave Attwood, although it would be just the coach’s luck if the Bath lock pulls out of this weekend’s meeting with the All Blacks at Twickenham a few hours shy of kick-off.
Attwood is about to become a father and the red-rose hierarchy acknowledged on Monday that a “Plan B” was under discussion in case a different kind of duty calls.
Make that a “Plan E”. Lancaster has been hit hard and often in the engine room department, with the Lions line-out general Geoff Parling unavailable after a number of concussion injuries and his uncapped Leicester clubmate Ed Slater on the long-term casualty list after knee surgery. Together with the influential Launchbury, both Welford Roaders were ahead of Attwood in the pecking order following the summer Test series in New Zealand.
But Attwood is in the form of his life, repeatedly producing high-quality performances for Bath. In the past, he has been the bemused recipient of mixed messages: certain England coaches who wanted him to be more aggressive also told him he should mind his Ps and Qs; others wanted him to be as big as possible...and then asked him to shed a few pounds in pursuit of “aerobic maximisation”.
Right now, however, he is in the happy position of knowing exactly what is expected of him and living up to those expectations.
“I’m desperately disappointed to lose Joe,” said Lancaster, following the Wasps forward’s withdrawal from the entire autumn series. “He has had a neck problem since last year: it seems to come and go, flaring up and then settling down again. He feels now that it is inhibiting his performance and after consulting the specialist, the decision was pretty easy. We’re confident that a rest period of six to eight weeks will sort things out.
“Losing a number of players in one position does make life difficult, but I’m genuinely positive in the sense that it opens the door for others, especially as we’ll need four top locks for the World Cup next year. Dave has had an exceptional start to the season – I’ve been coaching him since 2008 and this is the best I’ve seen him play – and he’ll add to the physicality of our game. He’s probably a little stronger as a scrummager and since he’s lost a few kilograms, he’s improved his foot speed. He hasn’t lost too much weight: it’s not as if he’s disappearing in front of our eyes. But we’ve seen how good the All Blacks are in aerobic terms and it’s important that we compete with them in that respect.”
Some of England’s other walking wounded finally broke into a run in training yesterday, including the wing Marland Yarde, the centre Kyle Eastmond and the first-choice props, Joe Marler and David Wilson. Eastmond is set to form a new midfield partnership with Brad Barritt, but there is no guarantee that Yarde will be retained in the side. The Harlequin is being challenged hard by Jonny May of Gloucester.
One wing who appears certain to take the field against New Zealand is the Fijian-born serviceman Semesa Rokoduguni, whose pyrotechnics on behalf of Bath have been the main talking point of the season to date. But he will find the All Black back division just a little more threatening than anything he has faced at Premiership level, even though the World Cup-winning wing Cory Jane has already been invalided out of the tour and the cross-code maestro Sonny Bill Williams is struggling with a thigh injury.
England’s injuries - who is missing
Luther Burrell (hand), Manu Tuilagi (groin), Stephen Myler (hamstring).
Alex Corbisiero (shoulder), Mako Vunipola (knee), Tom Youngs (shoulder), Dan Cole (neck), Joe Launchbury (neck), Geoff Parling (concussion), Ed Slater (knee), Tom Croft (knee), Tom Johnson (neck).Reuse content