Mike Tindall, the stand-in captain who has led England to within 80 minutes of a first Six Nations Grand Slam since their year of years in 2003, will learn today whether he has the remotest chance of being fit for the last act in the drama, to be staged in Dublin on Saturday evening. The Gloucester centre is hardly in the best of shape, having mangled his ankle ligaments during the narrow Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland at the weekend, but the red rose selectors at least have the comfort of knowing the mountainous Matt Banahan of Bath will almost certainly be available to fill the hole in midfield.
Banahan made quite an impact when he replaced Tindall at Twickenham, most of it on the Scottish No 8 Kelly Brown, who has yet to find his way back from la-la land following a close encounter of the "time gentlemen please, that's all for tonight" kind with his opponent's leading arm. If Banahan was profoundly unapologetic – "I wish him the best for a speedy recovery but accidents happen and I'm not going to run softly for fear of hurting people," said the unusually substantial Channel Islander – there was some expectation that the citing officer Russell Howell might intervene. As of last night, however, there was no indication of Howell taking the matter further.
Martin Johnson, the England manager, would prefer his skipper to be on the field in Dublin, all the same. Tindall may not be the most creative centre in the world game – come to think of it, he is not even the most creative centre at Gloucester – but his rich experience at international level, allied to an unfailingly positive approach to leadership on and off the pitch, has done much to limit the damage caused by the tournament-long absence of the "real" captain, Lewis Moody.
"Dublin is the toughest place in Europe for us to go right now," remarked Johnson, looking ahead to England's first visit to a modernised Lansdowne Road. "France put in what was probably the performance of the championship in winning there. Ireland are a very proud team, they've been under the radar in this tournament with no one really talking about them and they'll be smarting after what happened to them in Cardiff at the weekend. They're tough, resilient, gritty."
Wales, the one side retaining an outside chance of pinching the title from under English noses, will have the Lions tight-head prop Adam Jones available to them for the last-round trip to Paris. Fresh back on active duty after suffering an elbow injury during a Heineken Cup game two months ago, Jones will replace his Ospreys colleague Craig Mitchell, who underwent surgery on a dislocated shoulder after the controversial victory over Ireland on Saturday.
George North, the brilliant young Scarlets wing who launched his Test career in such startling fashion before Christmas, is also back in the squad after recovering from shoulder trouble, but there is little prospect of him playing an active part against the French.