The England manager, Martin Johnson, would deny it with his dying breath, but a clear pecking order for next year's World Cup in New Zealand is emerging – a pecking order that certain well-established Test performers, Delon Armitage and James Haskell among them, will find profoundly unappealing. Both the London Irish full-back and the Stade Français flanker were among 11 players released back to their clubs yesterday, and they will take no part in the last of the autumn internationals, against South Africa this weekend.
Armitage might have a chance to vent his frustration on the field, for the Exiles meet Northampton in a top-of-the-table Premiership game at Franklin's Gardens on Friday night. Haskell, who started for England against Samoa four days ago, has no such comfort. Stade Français will not play again until the Paris derby with Racing Metro on 4 December.
For better or worse – and it may well turn out to be the latter – Armitage has been overtaken by Matt Banahan of Bath in the race to nail down the jack-of-several-trades spot among the outside backs, even though the London Irish man offers the greater positional flexibility. Johnson prizes Banahan's battering-ram approach at wing or centre to Armitage's more elusive qualities and clearly sees him as the more likely successor to Mike Tindall.
Haskell, whose talking of the talk has been in inverse proportion to his walking of the walk in recent times, will be bitterly disappointed at losing out to Hendre Fourie, the new back-row contender from Springbok country whose desperation to take an early swipe at his countrymen knows no bounds. Johnson was always going to restore Tom Croft to the blind-side flank for this game, not least because the Leicester forward's aerial ability gives England at least an outside chance of cramping the style of the South African line-out genius Victor Matfield, but Haskell cannot have foreseen Fourie's emergence as a significant force. If he is concerned for his immediate prospects, it is with good reason.
Croft is now firmly established as one of Johnson's go-to men, and he spoke with impressive clarity yesterday. "Matfield is very precise," he said. "The Boks drive a lot of their line-outs and they'll seek ascendancy from the start. It will be up to us to take that drive to the floor and obliterate it." These were the words of a man who learnt valuable lessons during last year's Lions tour, where he found himself operating at the limit. "That experience gave me the confidence of knowing I could live with the pace at the very top level," he agreed.
Of the others sent home from camp, only the Gloucester lock Dave Attwood featured against the Samoans. Johnson has opted for the hard-boiled services of the veteran Wasps second-rower Simon Shaw instead. Asked whether he expected the Springboks to be even more motivated than usual as a result of an increasingly strident campaign to end Peter De Villiers' reign as head coach, the manager responded: "I don't think they'll collapse under the pressure. We'll have to win the physical battle. Aggression is a big part of what the Springboks are."
Still smarting from his team's failure against the Scots in Edinburgh last weekend, De Villiers has recalled scrum-half Ruan Pienaar and No 8 Pierre Spies to the starting line-up.