Stuart Lancaster may be a master of system and process, but there is not a system or process in the whole wide world of sport that can prevent a virulent outbreak of old-fashioned orthopaedic trauma. The England head coach acknowledged yesterday that the injury fallout from the last round of Premiership fixtures was every bit as serious as he feared at the time – and that it has cost him the services of Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and, almost certainly, Jonathan Joseph for the opening autumn international against Fiji on Saturday week.
Worse still, Hartley is odds-on to miss the entire four-match series, which includes increasingly testing contests with the Wallabies, the Springboks and the All Blacks, the three leading sides in the rankings. Lancaster sent the Northampton hooker back to his club for further treatment on a mangled knee joint and while he was reluctant to rule him out completely, he admitted there was very little likelihood of the New Zealand-born forward playing any part in the business ahead.
"I want him to stay positive and optimistic," Lancaster said of Hartley, who captained England against South Africa in Port Elizabeth last June, the last time the national side took the field in anger, and is a senior member of the red-rose leadership group. "Like Courtney, he has the kind of knee problem that makes it difficult to put a definite time on recovery, but if Courtney is going to be out for one or two weeks, Dylan will be a couple of weeks beyond that, realistically speaking. Neither of them will be around for the Fiji game.
"As a coach, you have to roll with it: this is precisely why we try to build depth in the squad. But it's hard on Dylan, who did a tremendous job in South Africa and will be a very big miss for us. His job was to put together a strong run of games for his club and come into this massive series in top form. To have it snatched away so late in the day is cruel. What we need now is for other players to step up and fill the void."
If Hartley and Lawes seemed likely to miss the start of the forthcoming series from the moment they were hurt during Northampton's home defeat by Saracens on Saturday, there was no obvious reason to think that Joseph, who won his first caps at outside centre in South Africa, was at serious risk. But the London Irish midfielder's ankle problem, aggravated during his club's narrow defeat by Harlequins on Sunday, is more of an issue than initially thought.
"Jonathan will be struggling to train before next Monday or Tuesday, which is when we'll be picking the side," Lancaster said, in a tone that suggested the newcomer was unlikely to be considered. "It's a tight turnaround for him in respect of Fiji," he added. Assuming Joseph is off-limits, the most obvious solution would be to move Manu Tuilagi to outside centre, where he plays at Leicester, and recall the in-form Brad Barritt of Saracens at No 12.
Lancaster is hoping against hope that Joe Marler, the Harlequins prop, will recover from a hamstring strain in time to face the men from the South Seas. With Tom Youngs, the uncapped Leicester hooker, now a clear favourite to make his debut against the Fijians, it would be stretching a point to run an even less experienced rookie, Mako Vunipola of Saracens, alongside him at the sharp end. The double front-row newcomer experiment has been tried before, by Clive Woodward in 1997 when he paired debutants Will Green and Andy Long with veteran Jason Leonard. It blew up in the coach's face like a school laboratory stink bomb.
At least Chris Robshaw could be seen haring around the training pitch at the new £100m-plus national football centre in Staffordshire, much to the alarm of groundstaff who did not expect to see rugger types making quite such a mess of their precious greensward.
Reappointed as captain by Lancaster – "We felt we had to give people playing in Chris' position the chance to state their case so we delayed the announcement, but it was pretty much a no-brainer," the coach confessed – the Harlequins flanker was completely confident of making a full recovery from the eye injury he suffered against London Irish in good time to take on the Fijians.
"There was a moment on Sunday, just when the injury happened, when I felt slightly worried," admitted Robshaw. "But as soon as the doctor told me there was nothing broken, I knew I'd be fine. I'm just happy to keep the captaincy. I'm in a privileged position and feel extremely honoured."
Robshaw has done everything asked of him and a whole lot more since shouldering the burden before last season's Six Nations, but with Hartley gone he finds himself without his lieutenant-in-chief for the first time. Like Lancaster, he will feel the lack of him.
Diamond takes the Redpath reins at Sale
The Sale Sharks chief executive, Steve Diamond, has confirmed he will be in charge of the team for the rest of the season following Bryan Redpath's removal from the position of director of rugby yesterday.
Responding yesterday to reports that Redpath had been sacked, Sale – bottom of the Premiership having lost all of their seven league fixtures this term – released a statement which stressed the Scot had not been dismissed by the club.
Redpath is, however, considering an offer to take up a new coaching position at Sale.
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