Lancaster looks into Flood warnings
Coach investigates Tigers fly-half's fitness and calls in outsiders for England squad to face Barbarians
It goes without saying that England will need every last available resource if they are to make some sense of next month's three-Test series against the Springboks in South Africa, so the national coach, Stuart Lancaster, will be very interested indeed in the injury bulletin from Leicester today. Lancaster has saddled Phil Pask, the longest-serving of the red-rose conditioning staff, with the task of discovering the precise nature of the ankle problem that kept Toby Flood out of last weekend's Premiership semi-final against Saracens – and may yet keep him off the plane bound for Johannesburg.
There was much confusion on the Flood front last week. Named in the Tigers starting line-up for the big game at Welford Road, he was withdrawn an hour before kick-off. At least, that was the story pedalled by the Midlanders' director of rugby, Richard Cockerill. Others insisted that the fly-half's condition was far worse than Leicester were willing to admit, to the extent that his participation in South Africa was by no means assured.
"I'll know more when Phil reports back," Lancaster said yesterday, after naming a 27-man squad for the pre-tour runaround against the Barbarians on Sunday week – a party featuring the button-bright Gloucester playmaker Freddie Burns as a reinforcement at No 10. "I need to cover all the bases and Freddie has been playing pretty well. Will we take Toby to South Africa if he's not quite fit? It's hard to say. There's not much point flying there with someone who won't be ready until halfway through the trip, but if it's only a matter of a few days, maybe."
The body of the squad is drawn from the tour party, minus the heavy contingents from Leicester and Harlequins, who meet in the Premiership final at Twickenham the day before the Baa-Baas fixture. Four outsiders have been drafted in: Burns, the Exeter scrum-half Haydn Thomas, the Saracens No 9 Richard Wigglesworth and the London Irish flanker Jamie Gibson. The latter might easily have been picked for the trek across Springbok country, but was pipped to the last back-row position by Bath's Carl Fearns.
Lancaster was pressed on a couple of topics yesterday, most notably the circumstances surrounding the Northampton hooker and captain, Dylan Hartley, who has just completed an eight-week suspension for biting the Irish flanker Stephen Ferris during the last Six Nations match in March. Hartley has been mentioned as a possible England captain, not least by Lancaster's fellow coach Graham Rowntree, and with the incumbent Chris Robshaw off-limits for the Baa-Baas contest, it would be an obvious moment to introduce the New Zealand-born Hartley to the demands of captaincy at representative level. There again, Hartley is an "interesting one" when it comes to discipline and might be viewed as a high-risk option.
"There will be a conversation with Dylan some time next week," Lancaster said. "I've spent a lot of time talking about the culture I'm trying to develop here, about building trust between coaches and players, and that has to work both ways. I'll sit down with him. I want to reassure myself that he understands the disciplinary parameters."
As far as the thirtysomething centre Mike Tindall is concerned, it seems there will be no more conversations – none, at least, on the subject of his international future, which is now firmly behind him. The World Cup-winner was ditched by Lancaster ahead of the Six Nations, and with the likes of Jonathan Joseph, the highly-rated London Irish midfielder, percolating through the system, the coaches are looking straight ahead rather than over their shoulders.
"Mike will be playing for the Barbarians and that's fantastic," Lancaster said. "He hasn't announced his retirement from international rugby and I haven't shut the door on him, but if you look at the route we're going down, it's unlikely he'll be involved again."
On the World Cup front, administrators have confirmed that the 2015 tournament in England will start in mid-September, two weeks later than in recent competitions.
Twenty-seven-man squad to play the Barbarians at Twickenham on 27 May.
Forwards M Botha (Saracens), A Corbisiero (L Irish), P Doran-Jones, P Dowson (both Northampton), C Fearns (Bath), J Gibson (L Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), T Johnson (Exeter), J Launchbury (Wasps), L Mears (Bath), B Morgan (Scarlets), M Mullan (Worcester), T Palmer (Stade Français), M Stevens (Saracens).
Backs C Ashton (Northampton), B Barritt (Saracens), F Burns (Gloucester), L Dickson (Northampton), O Farrell (Saracens), B Foden (Northampton), A Goode, C Hodgson (both Saracens), J Joseph (L Irish), D Strettle (Saracens), H Thomas (Exeter), C Wade (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Saracens).
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