England have already half-committed themselves to a change in their midfield configuration following the latest orthopaedic calamity to befall their first-choice No 10 Toby Flood. Now, they are waiting nervously for news of their most threatening outside back. Northampton have been eerily quiet on the subject of Chris Ashton since the free-scoring wing limped off the field after putting two typically sharp tries past Bath at Franklin's Gardens six days ago, and there is some concern amongst the national hierarchy about his precise state of fitness.
Ashton was seen leaving the dressing room area on crutches last Friday night, and was heard to admit that doctors had been unable to conduct an immediate examination of his damaged foot because the pain was too great. A Northampton spokesman said yesterday that Ashton, currently among the two or three most dangerous wings in Europe, was making "good progress", but could not say whether he was being considered for this weekend's big Premiership match at Saracens.
Happily for England, there are options on the wing, especially as David Strettle has hit the ground sprinting after his summer move to Saracens from Harlequins. With Mark Cueto of Sale a near certainty to start against the All Blacks at Twickenham in early November and Matt Banahan of Bath in reserve, the cupboard is nowhere near as Old Mother Hubbardish as it is in some other areas – most notably at No 8 and centre. But if it turns out that Ashton has a serious injury – and foot problems are notoriously complex – the chances of Martin Johnson's side registering a morale-boosting autumn victory over one of the big southern hemisphere nations will be diminished.
One of those SANZAR powers, the reigning world champions South Africa, will head for the British Isles without their unprecedentedly successful captain John Smit, the only Springbok who has both lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy and led his countrymen to a series victory over the British & Irish Lions. The versatile front-row underwent surgery on his neck yesterday and while the surgery was entirely successful, there is no possibility of a return to full-contact rugby before Christmas.
"The timing was right," said Craig Roberts, the Springbok team doctor. "It was not a career-threatening injury, but we wanted to ensure John's availability in 2011 and this gives him a prolonged period of recovery ahead of the southern hemisphere season."
Scotland, meanwhile, have lost one of their senior outside-halves, Phil Godman of Edinburgh, for a minimum of six months. The 28-year-old midfielder tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while training with his club on Tuesday and will require surgical intervention.
"There are many examples of players returning to full international duty having sustained this kind of injury," said Dr James Robson, whose work with Scotland and the Lions has established him as one of the leading medics in the sport. "Phil's rehabilitation starts now. The Edinburgh and Scotland medical teams will be working to deliver him, ready for consideration for the World Cup next year."
Back on the Premiership front, Exeter confirmed their interest in bringing the Australian lock Peter Kimlin to Sandy Park on a short-term deal. The 25-year-old forward is said to have secured clearance from the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies to spend the next few months in England.