Just when Andy Robinson thought his luck might be changing on the casualty front, with Phil Vickery and Lewis Moody showing early signs of returns to fitness, the most experienced forward left to England's acting head coach dealt a crippling blow to the spirit.
Richard Hill, capped 71 times, ruled himself out of all rugby for a minimum of six months after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee - nothing short of a calamity for Robinson, who must do without the Saracens flanker for the 2005 Six Nations' Championship, as well as the forthcoming autumn Tests against Canada, South Africa and Australia.
Hill may spend as long as nine months out of the game as he recovers from damage to his anterior cruciate ligament, which he suffered during his club's Premiership defeat at London Irish last weekend. If this worst-case scenario is the one that comes to pass, the 31-year-old forward will certainly miss out on a third tour with the British and Irish Lions and may not play international rugby again - or, indeed, much rugby of any description. If the news comes as a cruel setback to England, it is a significantly crueller one to Hill himself.
Robinson said yesterday that his thoughts were with the player, while the Saracens coach, Rod Kafer, added his condolences. "We're very disappointed for him," Kafer said. "Richard has worked hard to get himself back to the form he showed during the World Cup last year. He's a key player for us, especially in defence, and we'll be collaborating closely with him throughout his rehabilitation."
When England take the field against Canada at Twickenham on 13 November, it will be the first time a senior red rose side has started an international fixture without any of their World Cup-winning loose forwards - Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back - since the home defeat by the Springboks in the autumn of 1995.
That, ironically enough, was the last time Robinson appeared for his country. More recent matches played in the absence of the three back-row titans - on the tours of Argentina in 1997 and 2002, of the southern hemisphere in 1998 and of North America in 2001, plus the World Cup warm-up fixtures in Wales and France last year - coincided with periods of injury, enforced rest, or Lions' duty.
There were more bad tidings for Robinson when Northampton's head coach, Alan Solomons, again decided to omit Ben Cohen from his starting line-up. The international left wing, out of form and increasingly short of game-time as a result, was dropped for last week's match with Wasps, and remains on the bench for the Premiership trip to Saracens on Sunday. John Clarke, who played at full-back for last season's successful England Under-21 side, wears the No 11 shirt this weekend, with Wylie Human switching to the right wing.
Sale, top of the table after five games and the only unbeaten side in the Premiership, take on London Irish at Edgeley Park tonight with a pack showing half a dozen changes, two of them positional, from the one that struggled to tame the Leeds forwards at Headingley last weekend. Trevor Woodman returns at loose-head prop - good news for Robinson at last - while Sebastien Bruno and Stuart Turner fill the other front-row spaces ahead of Andy Titterrell and Barry Stewart.
Dean Schofield replaces Chris Day at lock, where he will be joined by Jason White, who moves from the back row. Chris Jones, meanwhile, makes the same journey in reverse, moving from lock to blind-side flank.
- More about:
- British And Irish Lions
- Guinness Premiership
- London Irish (rugby)
- Phil Vickery
- Saracens (rugby)
- Six Nations Rugby