Stuart Lancaster forced to reshuffle England pack after Jonathan Joseph and Tom Palmer blows
Injury and suspension may be the bane of a coach's life, but they take the pain out of team selection. The failure of the London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph to complete Monday's training session at the England base in Surrey effectively ruled him out of next Saturday's meeting with Fiji at Twickenham, thereby sparing Stuart Lancaster and his back-room staff an awkward decision in midfield. It now seems certain that Brad Barritt of Saracens and Leicester's Manu Tuilagi will be reunited in the back division.
But for every piece of good news received by Lancaster – the head coach was heartened by the Harlequins prop Joe Marler's swift recovery from a hamstring issue – there was bad news coming along behind. Tom Palmer, the Wasps lock, is not exactly at death's door but the minor calf problem that prevented him taking an active role in last week's preparations at the new National Football Centre in Staffordshire has yet to sort itself.
As a result, Palmer's in-form clubmate, Joe Launchbury, was called into the squad as cover, while the Saracens forward Mouritz Botha found himself a step closer to starting against the South Seas men.
Lancaster is also low on wing options, thanks to Chris Ashton's inability to dodge disciplinary trouble. Ashton's latest suspension, imposed for three illegal hits grouped together under the totting-up procedure, means England are down to their last two wide men: the highly experienced Ugo Monye of Quins and Charlie Sharples, the relative newcomer from Gloucester.
"I've had a chat with Chris," the coach said. "One of his real strengths as an international rugby player is his competitive nature, but we have to work on tempering it so we get the best out of him – and part of that is improving his tackle technique. It's disappointing that he's not available for the Fiji game, but it creates an opportunity for someone else.
"He's the most frustrated of everyone because he's out there training on one side of the pitch while the match-day squad are training on the other side."
The injury to Joseph, together with the knee problem that has forced the centre Jordan Turner-Hall back to Harlequins for intensive treatment, has given Lancaster the opportunity to draft the Gloucester midfielders Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees into the training group – just reward for their exciting performances in the first tranche of Premiership matches.
In fact, had the coach not been constrained by the terms of the Elite Player Squad agreement with the top-flight clubs, which to all intents and purposes forced him to pick his party for these autumn fixtures as long ago as July, they might both have found themselves winning first caps against the Fijians.
"We recognise the form they're in and this is a good chance for them to train with the current internationals and put themselves in the mix going forward," Lancaster said. "Do I feel straitjacketed? Not really. The agreement has to work for the clubs as well as the national team and I think it does that. Now that they're with us, all it takes is one injury for them to be involved. And anyway, we select a new squad in January ahead of the Six Nations."
Meanwhile, the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson shone an amusing sidelight on last week's gathering in the Midlands, during which the squad were addressed by the Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins.
"He was inspirational – he struck me as a very dedicated, down-to-earth bloke," Johnson said before revealing that Wiggins had to cut short his speech because a helicopter was waiting to whisk him elsewhere.
Down to earth? Really? "Actually, he was seriously embarrassed by that," the back-rower said. "He took an awful lot of gyp from the lads."
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