Stuart Lancaster may be the calmest England coach of the professional era, but his unflappable approach to the red-rose job was under severe strain yesterday when the full extent of the injury fallout from the weekend's Premiership activity became clear. Concerns over the centre Jonathan Joseph, the scrum-half Ben Youngs, the lock Courtney Lawes and the captain Chris Robshaw paled into insignificance as the medical bulletin on Dylan Hartley was issued.
Hartley, the outstanding hooker in the English game by such a distance that a chasm has opened up beneath him, damaged his knee during Northampton's defeat by Saracens at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday. While there was no immediate news on the seriousness of his condition from the England camp, events elsewhere confirmed he was at risk of missing the entire autumn international series, which begins with a game against Fiji on 10 November and continues with matches against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – the teams currently dominating the world rankings.
Brian Smith, the London Irish rugby director, confirmed that his first-choice hooker, the Australian-born David Paice, had been called into the squad. "It seems Hartley has a significant injury," he said. "I anticipate David being with England for the whole of the Test programme."
Paice was told of his call-up immediately after yesterday's game with Harlequins in Reading, five days after being informed by the England hierarchy that he had failed to make the cut for the 32-man squad. He has not been capped since making a couple of appearances off the bench against the All Blacks on the ill-fated tour of New Zealand in 2008.
Lancaster could not have received worse news. Hooker is a worryingly weak position in terms of depth and has been for some time: Hartley's only rival for a place in the middle of the front row against Fiji was the uncapped Tom Youngs of Leicester, whose line-out throwing over the last couple of matches has been some way short of accurate. Other contenders, thin on the ground as they are, have injuries: long-term in the case of the Bath player Rob Webber, short-term in the case of the Harlequins forward Joe Gray.
England sent for a second forward reinforcement in George Robson, the hard-working Harlequins lock and occasional captain, as cover for Lawes, who also picked up a knee problem while playing for Northampton. Robson made an excellent job of leading the red-rose midweek side on the tour of South Africa in June and will be a popular addition to the squad, but he cannot match Lawes in the dynamism department.
Robshaw, the national captain who is expected to be reconfirmed in the role tomorrow, suffered an eye injury playing for Quins yesterday while Joseph, the London Irish centre, broke down in the same game with a recurrence of an ankle problem. Youngs, the Leicester scrum-half, missed his side's defeat at Gloucester with a slight hamstring concern while the two Wasps forwards in the squad, Tom Palmer and James Haskell, pulled out of yesterday's victory over London Welsh through a calf injury and illness respectively.