Moody leads walking wounded as England plans left up in the air
Captain's prospects for the World Cup clouded in doubt but concerns also hang over Hape and Sheridan
At this rate, England will not be entirely sure of the identity of their World Cup captain until the day of the opening match against Argentina in Dunedin early next month – or perhaps, given the embarrassingly chaotic state they found themselves in the last time they played Test rugby in the land of the All Blacks a little over three years ago, the day after it. Lewis Moody may or may not make it on to the flight to Auckland, his latest medical prognosis being of the "clear as mud" variety, and even if he does fly, he may or may not be fit in time for the meeting with the South Americans.
"All we can do is give him time and see how things develop," said the England scrummaging coach Graham Rowntree, who, as an old clubmate of Moody's at Leicester, is not wholly unfamiliar with the sight of a filthy great question mark hovering over the orthopaedically challenged flanker's immediate prospects of playing a game of rugby. "This is a week by week thing, and we'll reassess him in a few days. He's vital to us: he's done a great job leading the squad. Would he be missed? Of course he would. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Moody's third comeback from the knee injury he suffered while playing for Bath in a Challenge Cup fixture in January ended after an hour of England's victory over Wales at Twickenham. Yesterday, scan results revealed a mild strain to his medial ligament – information that was interpreted by the team's medical staff as "optimistic". All fine and dandy, then? Not quite. When Moody first suffered the problem, Bath officials were optimistic too.
One way or another, best-laid plans are unravelling faster than a Rupert Murdoch takeover bid. Andrew Sheridan, the Lions loose-head prop who missed most of the Six Nations after suffering a variety of physical malfunctions, is close to fitness, but not close enough as far as this weekend's return meeting with Wales at the Millennium Stadium is concerned. There is also considerable doubt over the centre Shontayne Hape, who has not played a competitive fixture since undergoing minor surgery towards the end of last season's Premiership campaign.
Martin Johnson, the manager, would have liked to see all three players on duty in Cardiff, just as he would have wanted the first-choice Ben Youngs – another player who has spent more time in the treatment room than on the training pitch – to raise a gallop for an hour or so. As it is, he must think again. Sheridan's absence raises the possibility of a newly-minted front-row unit featuring Matt Stevens, Steve Thompson and Dan Cole taking the field on Saturday, while Moody's ongoing issue leaves three players chasing a start in the breakaway position. Tom Wood, the Northampton forward who has played all his international rugby on the blind-side flank, is a candidate, as are the Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw and the South African-born groundhog Hendre Fourie.
With so many selectorial balls in the air this close to the tournament that will define Johnson's managership, it is surprising to think that he and his back-room colleagues have been plotting this campaign since England played two Tests in New Zealand in 2008 and copped two thorough pastings from the home side while embroiling themselves in an unsavoury sexual misconduct scandal. If they are not quite as frazzled as they were before the last World Cup in 2007, when Brian Ashton, the head coach, had less than eight months to find a team from somewhere, they are nowhere near as settled as they were before the 2003 competition, which they won under Clive Woodward.
At least they have a shoo-in player at full-back – not that the man in question, Ben Foden, sees it that way. The fleet-footed counter-attacker from Northampton was not involved last weekend; instead, he had to watch his great rival, Delon Armitage of London Irish, restate his case to the selectors in persuasive fashion. Foden is expected to play in Cardiff, however.
"There were mixed emotions at the weekend: you want the team to do well and Delon is a good friend, but he has put some pressure on me by performing the way he did," acknowledged the 26-year-old from Chester yesterday. "The ball will definitely be in my court the next time I pull on an England shirt."
Yet with so many injuries flying around, he is equally aware that the "next time" could be the last time for a while. "To see Lewis come off was very disappointing," he said. "He's our captain – a big character in the group. And when you see what happened to Morgan Stoddart [the Welsh full-back whose World Cup hopes evaporated when he suffered a badly broken leg during the second half on Saturday], it's sickening. You have to feel for him. All you can do in these warm-ups is go at it 100 per cent and hope you get through."
Meanwhile, the Welsh celebrity centre Gavin Henson admitted he would have to deliver something "pretty special" if selected for this weekend's game – his country's penultimate preparatory match. Henson is currently languishing in the midfield pecking order, although Stoddart's misfortune might open up a different route into the World Cup party.
If not Moody...who?
England's 'Crazy Horse' is struggling to be fit for the World Cup, so if the Bath flanker does miss out, who will lead the Red Rose Army in the Land of the Long White Cloud?
Mike Tindall It is not just Martin Johnson who values his dressing-room input: both Clive Woodward and Brian Ashton considered him a positive force. But is he a better outside centre than Manu Tuilagi?
Nick Easter The Harlequins No 8 is a first-choice player at the moment, but his leadership credentials were not enhanced by events in Dublin on Grand Slam day last March.
Dylan Hartley The hooker is a fiery sort, to be sure, but he led Northampton to the back end of two major tournaments last season and is seen there as a natural in the role.
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