It has come too late for this weekend’s opening Test with New Zealand, the reigning world champions, at the impregnable Auckland fortress of Eden Park, but the England tour party is at least beginning to look like a proper red-rose squad. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, added 16 players to his elite group yesterday after receiving a full medical bulletin on those involved in the profoundly debilitating Premiership final at Twickenham, and all will be available for the second meeting with the All Blacks in Dunedin on 14 June.
Fourteen of the late travellers are from Northampton and Saracens, the most eye-catching of whom is Alex Waller, the 24-year-old uncapped prop who scored the winning try for the East Midlanders in the closing seconds of club rugby’s showpiece event on Saturday. The loose-head specialist from Kettering replaces the injured Mako Vunipola, who is recovering from urgent surgery on a dislocated kneecap and is unlikely to return to meaningful action in time for the start of the new season in September.
Waller flew out with the scars of battle clearly evident on his beaten-up face: during the final, he needed treatment on a nasty eye injury before rejoining the fray in time to make the crucial contribution from the traditional front-row forward’s distance of a single centimetre. He is by no means certain to feature in any of the Tests – Joe Marler of Harlequins, Matt Mullan of Wasps and Nathan Catt of Bath are already contesting the loose-head position – but this is a precious opportunity to catch the eye of Lancaster and his fellow coaches before next year’s World Cup.
The two exceptions to the Northampton-Saracens cluster are Anthony Watson, the outside back from Bath, who was declared fit over the weekend, and Kyle Sinckler, the young tight-head prop from Harlequins. Sinckler is an intriguing prospect, full of bristling aggression. Lancaster craves more depth in the No 3 position – Dan Cole, the Lions Test forward from Leicester, and David Wilson of Bath are miles ahead of the competition in this area – and while the 21-year-old from Battersea is nothing more than a babe in arms by tight-head standards, he is clearly regarded as a player of significant potential.
Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, will spend as much time as anyone with Waller and Sinckler, both of whom have a strong chance of featuring in the midweek game with the Canterbury-based Crusaders in Christchurch on 17 June. As one of the few Englishmen who knows what it is to beat the All Blacks on their own soil – he was one of the forwards who famously survived a goal-line siege in Wellington in 2003 – the old Leicester hard-head says that this is the national team’s biggest challenge since the collapse of the Martin Johnson regime two and a half years ago.
“Our mindset in ’03 was to get after them,” Rowntree recalled on Monday. “We talk about giving the opposition the things they don’t want and that means bettering New Zealand when it comes to physicality. But it’s a tough place to come. They haven’t lost at Eden Park for 20 years and while records are there to be broken, you have to consider the caps they’ll have in their starting team. When you look at stats like that, you get worried.”
Northampton, basking in their title-winning glory, have rewarded the rugby director Jim Mallinder with a five-year contract extension. “Professional sport demands immediate results but there has to be a balance between focusing on the short term and building a sustainable club,” said Allan Robson, the Saints chief executive. “Jim has achieved this.”