England is the most populous rugby nation on earth, and the way things are going, every member of that population – with the exceptions of Charlie Hodgson and Mark Cueto, who remain so far out of favour they are practically in international retirement – will be called up by the new manager, Martin Johnson, at some point during the forthcoming autumn Tests. Johnson sent for more reinforcements yesterday in the shape of two uncapped backs, Ugo Monye and Delon Armitage, together with a World Cup forward in Nick Easter.
Monye, a wing-cum-centre from Harlequins who has had good judges at the Stoop singing his praises since the start of the season, appears to have the best chance of playing a part against the Pacific Islands at Twickenham a fortnight today. Johnson promoted him from the second-string Saxons squad as a direct result of James Simpson-Daniel's latest bout of injury hassle – an ankle problem that has removed the gifted Gloucester back from the autumn equation.
Easter, a club-mate of Monye's who started the World Cup final against South Africa a little over a year ago before falling on hard times selection-wise, moves back into the elite squad because a second Gloucester man, the No 8 Luke Narraway, is suffering with a hamstring strain. Armitage, who can play in any of the outside back positions and is an increasingly influential figure at London Irish, will cover for Mathew Tait of Sale, who is also struggling on the hamstring front.
There was no word yesterday on the prospects of Narraway and Tait recovering in time to face the tourists from the South Seas. The former, one of the few to prosper during the desperate two-Test trip to New Zealand last June, has an even-money chance of being declared fit. The latter, long touted as an England full-back in waiting, may be afflicted by a more deep-seated condition. He, like Narraway, will be treated by club medical staff over the next week.
Johnson plans to name his captain on Monday – the Saracens lock Steve Borthwick, who led the side in All Black country, is a strong candidate to keep the job – before sending those not required for the Pacific Island fixture back to their clubs for the final round of EDF Energy Cup ties. It seems that Armitage, who was not even in the Saxons squad until Thursday night, and Easter will stay with the squad past next weekend, because final decisions on the hamstrung pair are not expected until the following Monday.
Perhaps it is as well that neither Harlequins nor London Irish, who meet this afternoon, are obvious contenders for a place in the EDF knock-out phase. Both lost their opening matches, and are well behind Ospreys and Worcester, who face off in Swansea, in the race to progress. If Ospreys possess both home advantage and the clout to mount a meaningful defence of their title – the likes of Lee Byrne, Shane Williams, Gavin Henson and James Hook all start – the fixture marks a return to old haunts for Mike Ruddock, the Grand Slam-winning Wales coach who was rewarded for his efforts in 2005 by being elbowed out in 2006. Ruddock is making some serious progress at Worcester, and tomorrow's result is far from a foregone conclusion.
The same might be said for this afternoon's intriguing contest between Gloucester, the Premiership heavyweights who know what it is to get close to silverware but have little knowledge of how to get close enough, and Newport Gwent Dragons, routinely dismissed as the weakest of the four Welsh regional sides but now showing signs of sharp improvement under the resourceful Paul Turner.
"We want to be successful week on week, regardless of the opposition or the tournament," said Dean Ryan, the Gloucester head coach, yesterday. "It's how you build a competitive, durable side." The West Countrymen should be more than competitive today, despite a lengthening injury list that has accounted for the likes of Olly Morgan and Akapusi Qera, as well as Simpson-Daniel, Narraway and the centre Anthony Allen.
Happily, given the flawed format and timing of the Anglo-Welsh competition, there is a third game offering a degree of intensity: today's meeting between Cardiff Blues, flush from their excellent Heineken Cup victory over Gloucester six days ago, and Leicester. The Midlanders mean business. Toby Flood shifts from outside-half to inside centre to free up space for Derick Hougaard, the Fijian Seru Rabeni makes his first start of the season and two major contenders for an England back-row spot, Tom Croft and Jordan Crane, are in the pack.Reuse content