Graham Rowntree, the England scrummaging coach, is one of life's natural optimists, but after casting an old front-rower's eye over the wreckage of the red-rose army's best-laid plans in the set-piece department yesterday, even he decided that bleak irony was the only appropriate response. "I'm next in line," he said, with a weak smile, "so it'll be me who's playing if the money's right." And after Rowntree? Rumour has it that Jeff Probyn, Gareth Chilcott and Fran Cotton are being sounded out for this season's Six Nations Championship.
In the important – nay, crucial – position of tight-head prop, England are now down to their seventh choice. Injuries to Phil Vickery, Julian White, Jason Hobson and, as of last Saturday, the newcomer David Wilson – not to mention the fitness problems surrounding the brilliant young London Irish prospect Alex Corbisiero – mean Paul Doran-Jones, who has yet to play a full 80 minutes in a Premiership match for Gloucester, will understudy Duncan Bell of Bath, who last started a Test in 2005, against Argentina at Twickenham this weekend.
This is no place to be with the Pumas coming to town, for the scrum is, and always has been, the very strongest part of their game. Rowntree himself admitted as much. "What makes them so good? Is it a technical thing, a power thing, a mental thing? It's all three of those and more," he said. "They bring immense experience and desire to their scrummaging and it's up to us to face it. Yes, we're unlucky with injuries at the moment, but I'm sick of feeling unlucky. This is the deep end and Paul is the next guy in there, but let's get on with it."
According to the coach, the 24-year-old Doran-Jones has been blipping away on the front-row radar for some weeks, although Rowntree also admitted that until very recently, his colleagues on the back-room staff – the forwards technician John Wells and the attack strategist Brian Smith – would not have recognised him had he been sitting between them at dinner.
But Smith thinks Doran-Jones has "all the ingredients except experience", while Rowntree insisted: "Paul has my full backing because I like what I see. It will be a big step up for him, but you can't get caught up in that. What we're telling him is that he's good enough."
Martin Johnson, the manager, cut his squad by 10 yesterday afternoon, and those returning to their clubs will not be required for the date with the South Americans, ranked two places higher than England as the sixth best side in the world, unless more injuries kick in over the next 72 hours. The departees included yet another injured prop in David Barnes, who headed back to the West Country on crutches after breaking down in training, and, more significantly in terms of the starting line-up, Jordan Crane, the Leicester No 8. Crane has been replaced in the 22-man party by the Wasps forward Joe Worsley, who performed strongly on the open-side flank for England in this year's Six Nations and won a Lions Test cap in the blind-side role against the Springboks last summer, but has not played at No 8 for his country for some time. Worsley is expected to start this weekend's match on the bench, with James Haskell filling the hole in the middle of the back row.
If Crane finds himself carrying the can for last Saturday's defeat by Australia, he will be a little unfortunate, for while he hardly covered himself in glory, he was far from alone. England's principal problem, the painfully slow delivery of the ball at the ruck, was a collective issue rather than an individual one: Wells himself was heard to use the word "turgid" yesterday. To address this, England need more than a change of No 8. They need a change of mindset.
Wales, beaten for the umpteenth successive time by New Zealand last weekend but expected to prevail over an under-prepared Samoa at the Millennium Stadium on Friday night, have made five changes to their starting line-up, calling up the inexperienced Cardiff Blues flanker Sam Warburton and the young Ospreys outside-half Dan Biggar.
Another Cardiff man, the wing Tom James, also has a chance to impress ahead of the forthcoming meetings with Argentina and Australia, as do the Ospreys hooker Huw Bennett and, most intriguingly, the exiled half-back Dwayne Peel, whose international star has faded rapidly since his move across Offa's Dyke to Sale.
The man primarily responsible for New Zealand's latest victory, the stellar stand-off Dan Carter, has been banned for a week for his high hit on the Welsh replacement scrum-half Martin Roberts. The All Blacks are unlikely to lose any sleep, however. Their game this weekend is against Italy, over whom their average margin of victory across 10 fixtures exceeds 50 points.
Situations vacant: England's problem positions
And still they fall. Paul Doran-Jones was nowhere to be seen on the pecking order two months ago, yet he now finds himself in the match-day squad. England were hoping David Wilson would nail the position ahead of the 2011 World Cup. He still might, but not yet.
Nick Easter's injury offered Jordan Crane of Leicester a chance to up the ante. Against the Wallabies, he allowed the odds on his international future to drift. James Haskell may take advantage, but will not spend much time in the position while playing club rugby in Paris.
Martin Johnson has far more options here than did his predecessor Brian Ashton, but Danny Care's ponderous work at the tackle area against Australia was a bitter disappointment. Harry Ellis, the first choice, is injured. Is this the time for Paul Hodgson of London Irish to step up?
England's largest margin of victory over Pumas, 51-0, at Twickenham in November 1990.Reuse content