Here we are then: the fourth Sunday in October. In 2011 it will be the date of the World Cup final in New Zealand. Could there possibly be a big English mitt back on the Webb Ellis Cup? Today it is difficult to predict the make-up of the team to face Australia in less than a fortnight, never mind what might happen two years hence. As if to emphasise both the random nature of the current glut of injuries, and the havoc they are wreaking, they yesterday claimed the man who has played more Tests than anyone for England in the last three years.
Nick Easter, the bear of a Harlequins No 8 who has started 27 of the 35 England Tests since his debut against Italy in February 2007, suffered a suspected tear of the calf muscle in his right leg in his last club match before joining up with the national squad – or what's left of it – in Surrey this evening.
"I was running round the back of a line-out when I slipped," Easter said of the incident in the first half of Quins' 26-22 win at Worcester. "I was getting into a defensive position but after taking a couple of steps there was a sharp pain in the calf." Easter will report to the England camp on crutches and expects to have a scan on Monday when the initial bleeding has settled down. "I'm expecting a lay-off of two to four weeks," he said, "but the calf is weight-bearing and you use it in every aspect of running and jumping, so I can't rush back too quickly."
At the start of the week Easter had joined in a sponsor's evening of improvisational comedy in London and he had retained enough of his sense of humour to predict he might struggle to recognise a few new faces at the national team's hotel. Martin Johnson, the manager who also lost the Leicester tighthead prop Julian White to a torn hamstring yesterday, will be a saint if he can manage a smile. As many as 15 of his first-choice 32-man squad are thought to be unavailable for all or part of next month's Investec Challenge series, which brings Australia, Argentina and New Zealand to Twickenham.
Easter put a brave face on it, pointing out: "No, the injuries do not help but we've had the new agreement between the RFU and the clubs which has given us more time together as a squad and without that we'd have been at more of a disadvantage. A lot of the guys coming into the England squad now were around last summer for the Barbarians game and the two Tests against Argentina, while the Lions tour was on. They got a feel of what it's like in the camp and how we're trying to play the game."
England supporters will hope Easter is right – on the field the 31-year-old has done little wrong since coming late to the Premiership with Quins in 2004 – and that the removal of more than half the starting line-up from the national side's last first-choice fixture, against Scotland in March, can be smoothed over.
Johnson had alluded to the frustrations of disruption on the first day of this month. "As a team we are in a far better place than last year," he said then. "A lot of guys were new to international rugby and now they have been through a big year together." Since then he has lost the front-rowers Andrew Sheridan, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery and White, in addition to the lock Simon Shaw, flanker Tom Rees and, from the backs, Toby Flood, Riki Flutey, Delon Armitage, Harry Ellis and possibly Mike Tindall and Olly Morgan. The Bath props Dave Barnes and Duncan Bell are among the replacements, alongside reinforcements from the second-tier Saxons, including the centres Shane Geraghty and Dom Waldouck.
"Continuity of selection is important for the players and for the coaches too," said Easter, who has played with eight scrum-halves in his 27 Tests, "and probably the two most improved backs [are] Riki and Delon. But it's a great opportunity for others. Shane Geraghty has been playing fantastically well for Northampton and if he can take that confidence into the camp it will give an extra dimension." And Jonny Wilkinson is available again. "That's a massive plus," said Easter.
Wilkinson, almost needless to say, was out injured when England finished last season with home wins over France, Scotland and Argentina, and a narrow loss to the Pumas in South America. "There was a style emerging which is a winning style," said Easter. "[Attack coach] Brian Smith is big on attack and – after two or three phases – playing what you see. Just playing the game, really, nothing too robotic."
Johnson would be forgiven now if his default setting was panic.Reuse content