Dylan Hartley injury adds to England's hooker trouble

 

England's plans for the forthcoming autumn matches against the cream of the southern hemisphere suffered more disruption yesterday when it was confirmed that their most experienced front-row forward, the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley, suffered a hairline fracture of his eye socket during last Friday night's Premiership victory over Wasps. As hooker is the most pressing of the national team's problem positions, the news could hardly have been worse.

Northampton, top of the table after five rounds of fixtures, were their usual cautious selves in discussing the potential ramifications.

"It means he will be out short term and won't play this weekend," said Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder. But England head coach Stuart Lancaster, already beset by injury hassles, will have taken cold comfort from those words.

The recent retirement of the Lions forward Lee Mears from international rugby and the long-term fitness issues affecting a second Bath hooker, Rob Webber, have left England exposed in the hooking department ahead of a Twickenham series where operators as good as Adriaan Strauss of South Africa, Stephen Moore of Australia and the battle-scarred All Blacks Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu will be among the visiting No 2s.

To make matters worse, one of the uncapped contenders for an England place, Joe Gray of Harlequins, picked up a nasty eye injury of his own against Saracens at the weekend.

Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, was impressed by the Leicester youngster Tom Youngs during the five-match tour of South Africa back in June – a trip on which Hartley led his country for the first time – but there is a big difference between plonking him on the bench for the autumn Tests and starting him against some of the world's most accomplished close-quarter combatants.

Should Hartley require lengthy recuperation, a request from England to Mears to postpone his retirement for a few weeks will not be out of the question.

Meanwhile, Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend, one of the finest of all Scottish backs, made a typically eloquent appeal for protection of the pan-European ideal during yesterday's official launch of the Heineken Cup, which begins on Friday week under something of a cloud following the threat by clubs from England and France to quit the tournament at the end of the 2013-14 campaign.

Townsend, who played outside-half for the victorious British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1997, publicly disagreed with Mallinder after the Northampton man had called for a qualification system based on strict meritocracy that might leave the Scottish contingent out in the cold. "I played in the Heineken Cup up here in Europe and I played Super Rugby down in the southern hemisphere, and the Heineken is the best club competition in the world precisely because it involves teams from half a dozen countries rather than just three," Townsend argued.

"It stands out in the same way that the Six Nations stood out against the old Tri-Nations. I believe the Scottish teams have made genuine progress in recent seasons. If we were unable to play in the top tournament, it would be a serious blow to rugby in the country."

A Lions tourist of more recent vintage and a character well acquainted with controversy, the Sale No 8 Andrew Powell will appear before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel in Leeds today charged with mouthing foul language at, and making an offensive hand gesture towards, a group of spectators during his side's weekend defeat Bath.

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