England, not so much weakened by injury as ravaged by it, were bound to lose a front-row specialist sooner or later – and sure enough, the Bath tight-head prop David Wilson was yesterday ruled out of Friday’s meeting with Wales in Cardiff.
Unable to train because of a damaged nerve in his neck, Wilson will be restricted to a watching brief, along with all the second-rowers, loose forwards and midfielders on an ever-growing casualty list.
Yet if his great rival for the No 3 shirt, Dan Cole of Leicester, is truly as match fit as the England coaches say, this is something less than a calamity. Wilson performed particularly well during the autumn internationals, but Cole is the man with Lions Test experience – a man who can scrummage every bit as strongly while contributing significantly more in the loose.
“Test caps are important,” the England forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, remarked. “One of the things Wales have had under Warren Gatland’s coaching is a lot of caps: they’ve brought in players at an early age and stuck with them. In our camp, Dan is a proven international operator: when the current scrum protocols were introduced in 2013, he was one of the first props to work out how to use them to his advantage. To have him around is great for me.”
Cole broke down with neck trouble midway through last year’s Six Nations, underwent surgery a few weeks later and has not played at Test level since. But he had a run of club matches before Christmas and, even though he was then incapacitated by minor foot problems, Rowntree insists he is ready for the challenge awaiting England on the far side of the Severn Bridge.
Joe Marler of Harlequins, a standout performer in the November Tests against the cream of the southern hemisphere, seems certain to start at loose-head prop, with the inexperienced George Kruis of Saracens joining Dave Attwood in the engine room – the area of the pack hardest hit by orthopaedic trauma. Outside the scrum, the selectors are thinking seriously about pairing Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph in midfield. It would be yet another new partnership, but Joseph is a classically equipped outside centre who deserves his shot after some exceptionally attacking displays for Bath.
Rowntree was pressed on the subject of Dylan Hartley, patently the best hooker in England but also the most troublesome in terms of on-field discipline. “If Dylan is subject to extra pressure, he imposes it on himself,” the coach said. “We’re speaking to him about his clarity of thought, about doing the things he needs to do for the team and forgetting about everything else. But I see him as a key asset. Four years ago, when Warren Gatland called him out before our game in Wales, he was nigh on man of the match. I don’t like it when coaches do that, but he responded superbly. And I was there when Warren apologised to him.”Reuse content