The most surprising thing about Charlie Hodgson's finger injury, which will prevent the England fly-half facing the Triple Crown-chasing Welsh at Twickenham tomorrow, is that it did not happen during charge-down practice. The Six Nations champions have been rattling along at the rate of a try a game and as Hodgson claimed both those scores after laying hands on clearance kicks, everyone assumed he did himself a mischief while perfecting his latest attacking technique.
Not so. "It was totally innocuous: we were doing some unopposed training and Charlie managed to catch his finger in another player's shirt and rip open his finger," said Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, yesterday. "He needed half a dozen stitches but the real problem was the swelling. We gave him as long as we felt we could, but he's had a fitness test and it's plain that he has problems catching and passing the ball. He can't even grip it properly. It's disappointing for him, obviously. It was entirely accidental and that just adds to his frustration."
Characteristically, the coach gave no indication that he too might be frustrated at losing his most seasoned back ahead of the 80 minutes that might decide his own future at Test level. "It means an opportunity for someone else," Lancaster said. The "someone else" is the 20-year-old Saracen Owen Farrell, who moves from centre. It is no small thing to ask a player of such limited experience to run the show against a side as dangerous as Wales.
"Toby Flood was an option," said Lancaster, referring to the Leicester fly-half who fell victim to the conservative instincts of the Martin Johnson regime at the World Cup. "But 10 is a key decision-making position and anyone playing there needs a good knowledge of systems, structures and dynamics. Toby has been injured and played for his club last Sunday because he needed game time. Because of that, he couldn't train with us on Monday.
"Owen has been involved with us right the way through and this gives us a chance to look at him in the 10 shirt. His temperament speaks for itself and the fact that we're so confident in his ability to perform this role is great testament to his game understanding, his core skills and the way he does what he does without giving either his fellow players or his coaches the slightest cause for concern."
Farrell will, therefore, line up opposite Rhys Priestland. If anything happens to the Wales No 10, he will be replaced by the immensely experienced Stephen Jones, James Hook having withdrawn from the bench yesterday with chicken pox.
Lancaster was unperturbed by the lack of comparable experience in his starting side, let alone on the bench.
"Yes, there are a number of players making their first appearances at Twickenham," he said, "just as this is my first time coaching England at home. Their philosophy is the same as mine: enjoy the occasion and take what you can from it. Of course there will be pressure but one of the things we're meant to be doing here is finding out about the long-term potential of new players by exposing them to this environment. That means staying true to our beliefs. In a year's time, England may be able to field a side against Wales with 280 caps, not 180."
By handing Farrell a new set of responsibilities, Lancaster has created room for the World Cup centre Manu Tuilagi to start alongside Brad Barritt. Tuilagi will be told to do what he does best: run hard and straight at Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, wrong-foot them with the occasional sidestep and hurt the visitors with the odd offload. Barritt will be required to kick and distribute as well as chase and tackle. "I expect him to play ball as well as carry it," the coach said.
Lancaster's other changes were well flagged after the narrow win in Italy: Geoff Parling for Tom Palmer at lock; Ben Morgan for Phil Dowson at No 8; Lee Dickson for Ben Youngs at scrum-half. It is a good while since England took the field with such little know-how in positions of major significance, but as Farrell said: "Because we're in a new system with new coaches, we're all on the same page and growing at the same rate. We're a tight-knit group and we'll feed off each other."
They could be highly effective in doing that tomorrow and still finish second, but English rugby will know far more about the new generation come 6pm than it does now.
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