Another one bites the dust. Lewis Moody, the Lions Test flanker whose balls-out approach to the back-rower's trade has been successfully translated to the more nuanced world of international captaincy over the past 10 months, will miss the first three rounds of the Six Nations Championship, and quite possibly all of it, after suffering a knee injury while playing for Bath in a one-sided Heineken Cup game last weekend. The England hierarchy were putting their usual brave face on it yesterday, but after losing two first-choice forwards in Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes, this was the last thing they needed to hear.
Moody did something nasty to a medial collateral ligament – rugby's answer to football's metatarsal – in a 50-point romp against the overmatched Italians of Aironi and will be out of commission for around six weeks. As a result, he cannot hope to feature in the Six Nations before the Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham on 13 March. In truth, that meeting with the Scots is likely to pass him by, as is the last-round trip to Dublin the following week. Knees are difficult things, and his opportunity for meaningful match practice in March is likely to be very limited indeed.
Martin Johnson, the England manager who played alongside Moody on that night of World Cup nights in Sydney in 2003, trotted out the usual platitudes in response to the grim tidings. "It is always disappointing to lose a player and leader of Lewis's calibre, but as I have consistently said, good teams adapt to injuries and that is what we intend to do," he commented. "While this could still mean Lewis plays a role in the tournament, it does mean that another player gets the chance to step up and make it hard for him to get the shirt back."
For all that, Johnson would be less than human if he were not spitting tacks. Croft, another Lions Test forward and, like the captain, an important cog in the England line-out, suffered a shoulder injury during the desperately hard game with the touring Springboks last November while Lawes, the fast-developing Northampton lock, picked up a knee injury in the first half of a ferocious Premiership derby with Leicester earlier this month. Moody, by contrast, was hurt in the nearest thing to a "nothing match" big-time rugby has to offer.
"It's slightly more frustrating than at first thought," admitted Steve Meehan, the Bath coach. "We will of course make sure he receives the best medical attention." As is generally the case under these circumstances, Moody will undergo his treatment in the club environment, rather than the red-rose one. It remains to be seen whether Johnson calls him in for the odd captain's address during the Six Nations, which England launch by visiting Wales a fortnight on Friday.
What is certain is that the manager will summon replacements for all three stricken forwards on Monday, once the last round of Heineken Cup pool games is concluded. The Leicester lock George Skivington is thought to be ahead of the field in the race to fill in for Lawes – any remote chance of the former captain Steve Borthwick being recalled disappeared when the Saracen hurt his shoulder during the defeat by Leinster at the weekend – while there are several flankers hoping for a back-row call-up. Chris Robshaw of Harlequins, Andy Saull of Saracens and the hard-hitting Northampton pairing of Tom Wood and Phil Dowson will come under consideration.
The Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter shouldered the burden of captaincy when Moody was rested for the England-Samoa game before Christmas and there is no obvious reason to think he will not do so again when he and his colleagues cross the Severn Bridge for what promises to be a momentous scrap with a Welsh team equally of the view that defeat is not an option. It is also likely that Hendre Fourie, the Afrikaner from Burgersdorp turned Yorkshireman from Leeds, will start on the open-side flank. Fourie, a notable success during the autumn, is just the kind of player to cramp the style of the increasingly impressive Cardiff Blues scavenger Sam Warburton.
Wales, meanwhile, were lamenting the loss of another centre yesterday. Tom Shanklin's withdrawal from the Six Nations – knee surgery will sideline him for three months – means the Red Dragonhood are almost as bare in midfield as England are in the back-row. Shanklin joins Andrew Bishop of Ospreys and Gavin Henson of Saracens on the list of crocks, and if any misfortune befalls Jamie Roberts or James Hook in coming days, national coach Warren Gatland will be at risk of spontaneous combustion.
"We sent Tom for a scan and the medics thought he needed an operation to sort out the problem," said David Young, who coaches Shanklin at Cardiff Blues. "He should be back by the end of March, beginning of April, and may feature in some of our games at the end of the season, although he'll have to get himself fit."
Gethin Jenkins and his fellow Lions prop Adam Jones are already out of the running for Wales, as is George North, the exciting young Scarlets wing. The second-string scrum-half Richie Rees is unavailable through suspension.
Five in the frame: Front-runners for back-row vacancies
Steffon Armitage (London Irish)
A year ago he would have been in the elite squad, but the Exiles open-side fell out of favour with the England management some time back, much to the bewilderment of a New Zealand coaching team who rate him. While he remains a ball-winner of repute, the Test scene threatens to pass him by.
Phil Dowson (Northampton)
Many good judges consider Dowson to be the most consistent loose forward in Premiership rugby, but the England selectors have been strangely reluctant to call on him. Equally proficient on the blind-side or at No 8, Dowson specialises in the nuts-and-bolts work at close quarters.
Chris Robshaw (Harlequins) If anyone in the English game matches Dowson's work rate, it is the Harlequins captain. Capped against Argentina in 2009, he enjoyed a productive tour in June, impressing with his leadership skills. Like Dowson, he is positionally flexible; like Dowson, he is a defence coach's dream.
Andy Saull (Saracens)
Saull's pace and footballing instincts make him valuable as a long-range support player, and he did some brilliant things in last season's Premiership final. The lightest of the contenders – a black mark as far as these England selectors are concerned – he is also the quickest and most likely to change a match.
Tom Wood (Northampton)
A revelation. Wood moved to Northampton from relegated Worcester having spent most of his career as a short-side specialist. The Saints recast him as a breakaway, and there has been no stopping him. Big, aggressive and faster than he should be, he relishes playing on the front foot with a steamroller pack.
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