While Saracens are fretting over a potentially gigantic hole in their second row ahead of a tumultuous fortnight of finals in the Heineken Cup and Aviva Premiership, Stuart Lancaster will be sweating today on the fitness of full-back Mike Brown as the England head coach keeps upwards of 60 players’ plates spinning for the tour to New Zealand.
Lancaster named 20 players on Thursday as the basis of a party who will split into two teams to play the All Blacks in Auckland on 7 June and the Barbarians in the non-cap match at Twickenham six days earlier. Today at London’s Lensbury Club he will announce a sizeable additional contingent from Harlequins and Leicester, whose seasons finished at the weekend in their Premiership semi-final losses to Saracens and Northampton respectively.
While those defeats were sad for the clubs, they free up some notable performers to represent their country in the red-letter Auckland Test, including from Quins the England captain Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, Brown and Joe Marler. There are also likely to be uncapped Harlequins forwards – the hooker Dave Ward, second row George Robson and either or both the tighthead props, Will Collier and Kyle Sinckler – in Lancaster’s mix, together with some or all of Leicester’s Geoff Parling, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs, Anthony Allen, Ed Slater, Graham Kitchener and Mathew Tait. These players will join the initial 20 – who have skills and conditioning sessions today and tomorrow – on Wednesday night and the squad for Auckland will fly out the following Tuesday.
Injury hassles were inevitable in this pressurised period as the naturally occurring season’s finale combined with avoidably stupid scheduling. Brown, the ragingly in-form England full-back, limped out of the Allianz Park semi-final, won 31-17 by Saracens, after tweaking a hamstring in his left leg. With Northampton’s Ben Foden and Saracens’ Alex Goode unavailable to England until the second Test in New Zealand due to their involvement in the Premiership final on 31 May, an unfit Brown would force Lancaster to recall Tait for a first cap in four years or throw a rookie such as Worcester’s Chris Pennell or the 20-year-old Bath prospect Anthony Watson in against the world champions. Other, only slightly more left-field, choices for full-back would be this year’s Saxons full-backs Rob Miller and Elliot Daly, Gloucester’s Jonny May or Bath’s Nick Abendanon. The England fly-half position at Eden Park, in the absence of Saracens’ Owen Farrell and Goode and Northampton’s Steve Myler, is now between George Ford, Freddie Burns, Danny Cipriani and a currently injured Billy Twelvetrees.
Saracens, meanwhile, should know today whether Steve Borthwick, their line-out maestro and captain of the last six seasons, will be denied by a shoulder injury from contesting the two finals, beginning with Toulon in Cardiff this Saturday. It would be witheringly cruel on the 34-year-old, who is retiring this summer. Sarries are already without the injured England Saxons second-row George Kruis, while Mouritz Botha missed the Harlequins win after pulling up in the warm-up.
“If we take our foot off the gas we are destined to fail,” said Billy Vunipola, the Saracens No 8, of the attempt to emulate Leicester (2001 and 2002) and Wasps (2004) in winning the double. “They are tough games but we have to attack it, otherwise we are going to get hurt. If we waste energy thinking about England then we lose focus on what we at Saracens have been doing for the whole year. I am gutted I am missing out [on the first Test] but I am also happy I am playing with my mates in two finals and it is something I am looking forward to.”
The 34th-minute try by Saracens’ Scotland flanker Kelly Brown while they were down to 13 men was the semi-final highlight as the 2011 Premiership champions inexorably wore down a high-tempo Harlequins.