Four months ago, the Wasps prop Tim Payne was one of the men principally responsible for dismantling the Wallaby scrum in Sydney and helping England to a rare victory on Australian soil. It did not mark him out as one of the great front-row forwards in rugby history – an ailing maiden aunt with a wooden leg would have outscrummaged the hosts that night – but he must have expected something better than to be drummed out of the national squad ahead of next week's big game with the All Blacks at Twickenham.
Martin Johnson, the manager, let Payne go yesterday – a clear indication that there will be at least one change in the front row for the visit of the New Zealanders. Andrew Sheridan, the Sale prop, is the only specialist loose-head left in the party, and although Paul Doran-Jones of Gloucester has the ability to play on either side of the scrum, it will beggar belief if the injury-prone, guitar-playing Lion does not make another of his regular returns to international rugby on Saturday week.
Recent events have not done Payne any favours. The Wasps pack were humiliated by Northampton at Adams Park three days ago, and as a couple of England coaches witnessed their travails at first hand, there was always the possibility of some toxic fallout. Payne is now available to play for the Londoners at Leeds on Sunday. It is not much of a consolation, to say the least.
Most of those summoned as injury cover on Monday – the young Harlequins prop Joe Marler, the Wasps lock Dan Ward-Smith, the Northampton flanker Tom Wood, the Saracens centre Brad Barritt – were on their way home again after less than 24 hours in camp. But Johnson has hung on to the Sale outside-half Charlie Hodgson, drafted in after Jonny Wilkinson arrived from France complaining of a sore shoulder. Wilkinson was still under treatment yesterday.
Others released to their clubs for this weekend's Premiership activity included the Leicester hooker George Chuter, the Wasps centre Dominic Waldouck and the Saracens wing David Strettle. This leaves Steve Thompson and Dylan Hartley disputing the starting place in the middle of the front row and almost certainly means Johnson will pick two centres from Riki Flutey, Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall. Flutey's calf injury, sustained on Sunday, appeared to be on the serious side of worrying, and if he fails to recover, England might well face the likes of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith with a midfield partnership that is alarmingly one-paced, even by red-rose standards.
Johnson could conceivably run Delon Armitage at outside centre – the position Eddie Jones, the former Wallaby coach, believes suits him best – but this would be a major-league risk for a manager renowned as risk-averse. Armitage could also do a job on the wing, but the Chris Ashton-Mark Cueto partnership deserves another chance.
This much was clear last night: Lewis Moody, the flanker who has led England in their last three outings, is expected to play. Moody suffered a nasty eye injury during Bath's home defeat by Gloucester late last month and has not played since, but he will leave the training camp today in order to prove his fitness by turning out for the West Countrymen at Harlequins on Sunday. It is not an ideal arrangement: anyone about to engage in a personal contest with the wonderful Richie McCaw, one of the great forwards of this or any other age, needs all the rest he can get.