Vickery's injury is pain in the neck for Johnson

Wasps prop is the latest casualty ahead of England's three autumn internationals
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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson surely now appreciates why autumn is also known as "fall", as Phil Vickery yesterday became the latest England international to do an impression of a nine-pin, if not a domino.

The 33-year-old requires surgery on his neck, meaning Johnson will be missing his entire first-choice front-row for the November Tests against Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. After hooker Lee Mears was ruled out a fortnight ago with knee ligament damage, a dislocated shoulder sidelined loosehead Andrew Sheridan on Monday. That's roughly 35 stone the England coach lost in 48 hours. Perhaps they should rename it the "Johnno Two-Day Diet".

This was no time for wisecracks, however, as the withdrawals continue to mount. Like Sheridan's joint reconstruction, Vickery's operation will require a long-enough recuperation period to put him in doubt for next year's Six Nations; certainly the opening tussle with Wales. The tighthead has experienced neck problems in the past and Wasps revealed the former England captain aggravated the damage against Racing Metro 10 days ago.

"A collective decision by Phil, the consultant, Wasps' medical team and England has been made to progress with surgery," read their statement. "This will entail a rehab period in excess of three months."

Johnson has thus far managed to remain stoical about his casualties, but this will be tested to the extreme when he next peers at a confirmed absent-list which also includes Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey and Tom Rees. He now has just three fit props in his elite squad – Julian White, Tim Payne and David Wilson – and when he "updates" his troops on Monday, the paucity of back-ups in the second-string Saxons means he may have to look outside his two senior squads. Officially, this would not would be allowed within the English club-country agreement, although Premier Rugby have confirmed they would make a special case in this situation. Bath's David Flatman could earn an expected recall.

So much for the southern hemisphere giants being there for the taking. Australia are traditionally poor-scrummagers who will be doing cartwheels at Johnson's double setback, while the scrum-machine which will always be Argentina might take the aerobic celebrations a few stretches further.

And then there is New Zealand. The All Blacks have begun to look strangely fallible and to counter the shortcomings revealed in the Tri Nations, some of their senior players even requested their coaching team of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen swap roles in an unprecedented attempt to invigorate a stale set-up. More bizarre still, the request was accepted.

Warren Gatland will certainly emphasise with Johnson. The Wales coach's own injury problems yesterday lurched towards crisis with the news Mike Phillips will be out for 10 to 12 weeks. The Lions scrum-half will be praying the ligament damage he sustained against Clermont on Sunday heals in time for the Six Nations.

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