Forget the scrummaging machine and the midfield playbook; make way for the stethoscope, the thermometer and the neurocognitive assessment kit. This weekend’s “vengeance match” between England and New Zealand already has the makings of a medical drama as well as a sporting one, with the home camp expressing concern over the concussion suffered by the loose-head prop Joe Marler during the victory over Argentina three days ago and the tourists taking every anti-virus precaution under the sun.
The All Blacks did not make much of the subject in the immediate aftermath of last season’s heavy defeat at Twickenham but 12 months on they are suddenly talking a good deal about the illness that swept through their camp during the build-up to the game. “We didn’t have enough energy to compete with the English that day,” said Steve Hansen, the world champions’ head coach, en route to London following his side’s bruising confrontation with the French in Paris.
This might have drawn a waspish response from previous red rose hierarchies – Clive Woodward would certainly have had something to say on the subject – but Stuart Lancaster, the current England head coach, is not the man to be drawn into a verbal firefight in Test week, or any other kind of week come to that. “I’m sure the All Blacks will be motivated for this game,” he commented, before adding, with just a hint of meaning: “I feel we performed well in last year’s match.”
Lancaster’s concern over Marler would not be so acute if he had a full complement of loose-head props to work with over the next couple of days, but Mako Vunipola of Saracens is still struggling with the knee injury he suffered in the win over Australia 10 days ago. While the senior man in the position, Alex Corbisiero of Northampton, played a full half of rugby against Argentina following knee problems of his own, the heavy blow that forced Marler off the field at the interval has complicated matters. Hence the appearance of the Wasps front-rower Matt Mullan in the camp.
“We’re hoping Joe will be fine but he has to go through the mandatory concussion recovery procedure,” the coach said, confirming that Mullan would fill in for the stricken Harlequin in today’s double training session at the team base in Surrey. Lancaster also indicated that Christian Wade, the Wasps wing who would have made his home international debut against the Pumas but for a tweaked hamstring, was unlikely to make the cut for this weekend – a development likely to lead to a reprieve for Chris Ashton, whose form leaves plenty to be desired.
“If we were guilty of anything in the second half against the Pumas, it was trying to play around them before earning ourselves the right to do so,” Lancaster admitted. “At Test level, it’s very hard to beat teams round the edges without playing through them first and foremost. I’ve tried to show the players how we went away from what we’d done successfully earlier in the game and Chris was part of that equation, although he wasn’t the only person involved. But he’s a confident bloke and it’s good that he scored a try last weekend.”
Levels of belief appear to be high throughout the England side, despite the scale of the challenge ahead. “We had a degree of inner confidence when we beat the All Blacks last year, despite going into the game off the back of two defeats, and we have the same confidence this time having won our first two autumn matches,” the coach said. “We’ll spend the early part of the week talking about the lessons we learnt last year and how we can apply them this time. That will set the tone and shape the mindset.”
Marland Yarde of London Irish, another wing who missed the Argentina game through injury, is expected to recover from his hip problem in time for the game, as is the scrum-half Ben Youngs, sidelined last weekend with a similar problem.