Tom Wood, the Northampton flanker who has been a short-odds favourite to lead England through a challenging Six Nations, was yesterday declared off-limits by an orthopaedic specialist. Wood has been suffering from problems with his left big toe for some time and missed his club's impressive Heineken Cup victory over the Scarlets in Llanelli last weekend. Following a scan, he has been told to wear a protective boot, as opposed to a rugby boot, for the next month.
That means he will miss, as a minimum, the match against Scotland a fortnight tomorrow, the clash with Italy in Rome seven days later and the home meeting with Wales on 25 February. In all likelihood, he is out of the Six Nations altogether – a significant blow to England and their caretaker coaching team of Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell.
Wood's club captain, the hooker Dylan Hartley, has been mentioned as a possible skipper and there has been popular support for the hard-working Harlequins loose forward Chris Robshaw. The Leicester fly-half Toby Flood also has his backers, not least because he is guaranteed a starting place now Jonny Wilkinson has retired from Tests. But Flood is injured, Robshaw has next to no international experience and Hartley was some way short of his best at last year's World Cup and is still in the process of rescaling the heights. One way or another, Lancaster and company could have done without this news.
Meanwhile, reach for the abacus. Late January is the time of year when Heineken Cup arithmetic reduces work on the Large Hadron Collider to the level of Key Stage One addition and, sure enough, the calculators and logarithm tables have been in evidence all week. Tonight, Harlequins travel to the far west of Ireland for a decisive pool game that will decide their fate in this season's tournament. Or not. Confusing? Well, no one ever pretended it was simple.
The Londoners forced their way back into contention for a quarter-final spot by beating Toulouse, the most successful team in the history of the competition, in south-west France and kept themselves in the hunt with a nerve-shredding victory over Gloucester at The Stoop last weekend. All they have to do now is beat Connacht in Galway, scoring four tries in the process, and then wait. The wait could be as short as a few seconds or as long as 40 hours-plus, depending on what happens in areas as diverse as the west of England, the east coast of Scotland, the capital of Wales and the Massif Central.
Gloucester could do their rivals a major-league favour by beating Toulouse in this evening's simultaneous kick-off at Kingsholm. There again, the four-time champions are travelling in strength and can afford to leave two of the French squad who went within a point of winning the World Cup last autumn in the form of wing Vincent Clerc and the prop Jean-Baptiste Poux, on the bench. If Gloucester's selection suggests they will throw the kitchen sink at this one, the Toulouse line-up is an even greater declaration of intent. Médard, Jauzion, Poitrenaud, Beauxis, Servat, Albacete, Dusautoir... they all start.
Should Toulouse register any sort of victory, they will leave the Londoners contesting one of the two best runners-up places. Just to make life complicated, Clermont Auvergne, Ulster, Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh are in the equation. Clermont and Ulster face each other tomorrow and, should Quins fall short, the Irish side will rise above them in the pecking order if they gain anything in France.
The Blues-Edinburgh tangle will not be unknotted until Sunday, when the Welshmen take on Racing Métro and the Scots meet London Irish at Murrayfield. Both are a point ahead of Quins and will stay ahead of them, whatever tonight's result in Galway, if they take winning bonuses.
Is that clear? Excellent.
Heineken Cup status: Who needs what?
Munster have won the group. Northampton need to better the Scarlets' result to be second. If level, Scarlets win on head-to-head.
The Cardiff Blues need to match Edinburgh's result to win the group. The other side will be runners-up.
Leinster are group winners. Glasgow, Montpellier and Bath cannot qualify for the last eight.
Ulster need to avoid defeat at Clermont to win group. Leicester can still finish as runners-up.
Saracens win the group unless they lose heavily at Treviso and Biarritz beat Ospreys with a bonus point. Ospreys or Biarritz can be second.
Toulouse need to better Harlequins' result to stay top. The other side will finish as runners-up.