England mysteriously tight-lipped over fitness of Flutey and Shaw
England's rugby authorities will go out of their way to honour the armed forces before this weekend's highly significant – not to say pivotal – meeting with the Wallabies at Twickenham. They should be honouring MI5 instead, for it is the spooks, not the soldiers, who have left their mark on the national team. Not for the first time, the injury situation appears to be subject to the Official Secrets Act: ridiculously, there was no mention yesterday of the two Wasps players, Riki Flutey and Simon Shaw, who missed the defeat by New Zealand because of calf trouble. If Martin Johnson ever walks away from his job as manager, he will be replaced by John le Carré.
Even if Shaw were fit, he would struggle to break up the second-row partnership of Tom Palmer and the hard-hitting youngster Courtney Lawes; indeed, the Lions Test lock might not even find his way on to the bench, given Dave Attwood's impressive little cameo against the New Zealanders. Flutey is a different matter, though. With the England midfield continuing to fire blanks, the centre would be a strong candidate for the inside-centre role.
The back-room staff did admit to one injury concern. Lewis Moody, the captain, took a fair old battering from the All Blacks: his 15-round grapple with Jerome Kaino in the first half was followed in the second by a painful tête-à-tête with the Auckland hooker Keven Mealamu, who was subsequently cited for butting. Mealamu, uncomfortable in the knowledge that a guilty verdict might rule him out of the remainder of his team's Grand Slam tour, pleaded his innocence yesterday, and was backed by his coach, Graham Henry. "He's probably the cleanest player in the world, isn't he?" said Henry. The great Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll might beg to differ, given Mealamu's role in the infamous "dump tackle" incident during the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005.
With Moody suffering from a little-known condition described as "general soreness – head", the coaches called in Tom Wood of Northampton as cover. Wood has been in molten form at club level this term, but he is a little way down the pecking order. In the unlikely event that Moody fails to recover – in reality, a couple of days away from the training field should see him right – Hendre Fourie of Leeds will have the questionable pleasure of making a first Test start against David Pocock, the star turn in the Australian pack.
Johnson's desire to stick with this group of players through thick and thin – he has no obvious option, with a World Cup less than 10 months away – means there will be precious few changes, if any. A fit Flutey would have challenged, and there is a case for running the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley from the start, but the older, slower Steve Thompson is considered to be the superior scrummager, and with England certain to go after the fragile Wallaby set-piece, there will be a strong temptation to keep faith.
Tonight, a shadow Australian side play Leicester at Welford Road, and they will do well to leave the East Midlands with a win. No team boasting Luke Burgess and Berrick Barnes at half-back will be entirely without salvation, and there is more hardened Test experience at No 8 in the shape of Richard Brown. But Leicester are taking this extremely seriously and have named their strongest available combination – that is to say, a line-up missing only those on immediate international duty.
South Africa, widely expected to struggle on this autumnal gallop around the British Isles after imploding in the Tri-Nations series and then losing 13 players to injury, arrived in Wales in buoyant mood after their two-point victory over Ireland in Dublin. "We played with a lot of hunger, a lot of pride, and took a good step in the right direction," remarked Pierre Spies, their outstanding No 8. "We are motivated here because of what happened in the Tri-Nations."
Francois Steyn, one of the sport's best goal-kickers, has been released by French club Racing Métro and is available for this weekend's contest.
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