England vs France: Injury could rob Brad Barritt of important game time ahead of the Rugby World Cup 2015

By his standards, a tight calf is nothing more serious than a really mild dose of man flu

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Brad Barritt, one of precious few fixed points in the ever-changing landscape of England’s midfield strategy, has long been considered a certainty for duty at the World Cup. The uncertainty surrounds his prospects of any meaningful match practice ahead of the big event, thanks to fitness issues that prevented him participating in yesterday’s training session at the team base in Surrey.

By Barritt’s standards, a tight calf is nothing more serious than a mild dose of man flu: in the past, the Saracens centre has missed games through what might be called proper injuries, such as a lacerated eyeball. But if, as seems likely, he misses this weekend’s return warm-up against France in Paris, there will be only one run-out left to him – against Ireland at Twickenham on 5 September, less than a fortnight before the serious business begins when Fiji come to town for the opening night frolics.

Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, will not lose much in the way of shut-eye over Barritt’s readiness for the challenge ahead: there are few players more resilient in the face of injury trauma, or more single-mindedly professional in ensuring they are right, both physically and mentally, for big-match rugby. But Lancaster wants all 31 of his elite party, the shape of which will probably be confirmed late next week, to have had a hit-out before the Fiji date. If Barritt’s problem lingers, there will be some consternation among the back-room staff.

The coach has plenty of numbers still to crunch in his midfield calculations as four contenders – Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, a successful pairing in the 2014 Six Nations, and Sam Burgess and Henry Slade, paired together as debutants against the French at Twickenham last weekend – chase two places alongside Barritt and the Bath outside centre Jonathan Joseph. Burrell has not played a game since May, while Twelvetrees was given just a quarter of an hour to remind the rugby public of his existence on Saturday night.

The balance between giving them a proper shot at selection, unleashing Joseph after two months of solid training and continuing the newcomers’ crash course in international union is a delicate one.

As are the situations at hooker and No 8. Jamie George, the uncapped Saracens front-rower, will certainly be offered an opportunity to impress in Paris: indeed, it may be that a squad place will be his if he can throw vaguely straight at the line-out and scrummage his not inconsiderable weight. Pretty much the last man to break into the training squad – he was drafted after Dylan Hartley, the most experienced hooker in the land, copped another of his all-too-regular suspensions – he is now in a strong position to capitalise.

“We need to throw him in there and see how he gets on,” said Lancaster, whose patience must have been sorely tested by some of his pack’s set-piece frailties three days ago, especially with another new hooker, Luke Cowan-Dickie of Exeter, fluffing his lines.

“The line-out clearly didn’t go as well as we’d hoped against France and it’s such a critical area. We didn’t deliver enough quality set-piece ball from the scrum either, so Jamie has a big opportunity.”

So why, after he had shone like a beacon through the Premiership campaign, was George initially ignored? Something to do with perceptions over his aerodynamic abilities, perhaps? “There was never any question mark over his fitness,” the coach replied. “And we knew his set-piece work was good. What we needed to see was the physicality and ball-carrying ability in open field that you need at Test level. He proved he had that towards the end of the season, particularly in the Premiership final.”

As for the Gloucester  No 8 Ben Morgan, a mere 40 minutes into his competitive comeback after an eight-month absence with a busted leg, was there still time for him to hit the necessary heights? “There’s not long left – certainly not as many games for him as I’d like,” Lancaster acknowledged. “However, he’s an intelligent player, a powerful athlete, he’s always achieved well for England and that has to count for something. But we also have another guy sitting there in Nick Easter [the veteran Harlequins forward] and he isn’t waving the white flag.”


Playing centre stage - midfield contenders

Brad Barritt (29)

Debut v Scotland, Feb 2012

Matches 22 Pts 10 Tries 2

Billy Twelvetrees (26)

Debut v Scotland, Feb 2013

M 21 Pts 15 Tries 3

Luther Burrell (27)

Debut v France, Feb 2014

M 12 Pts 15 Tries 3

Sam Burgess (26)

Debut v France, Aug 2015

M 1 Pts 0 Tries 0

Henry Slade (22)

Debut v France, Aug 2015

M 1 Pts 0 Tries 0

Jonathan Joseph (24)

Debut v South Africa, June 2012

M 11 Pts 20 Tries 4