Martin Johnson and the rest of the England management were relieved to get through yesterday without a fresh calamity on the injury front, although they would not have been wholly surprised if, having granted their players a short holiday ahead of the next week's World Cup squad announcement and final warm-up game in Dublin, one of them suffered third-degree burns while barbecuing a chicken leg. Wales? They were not so lucky – they have lost Matthew Rees, Gavin Henson and Morgan Stoddart already and must now be wondering if their fortunes will ever change.
Their Lions Test forward Ryan Jones was the latest to cause a stir. The Ospreys player had been scheduled to lead the national team in what is likely to be a highly competitive match with Argentina at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow, but he has been suffering from calf problems for a while and is not quite ready for 80 minutes of rough and tumble with the abrasive Pumas. Warren Gatland, the head coach, withdrew Jones on precautionary grounds, whistled up Andy Powell to take his place in the middle of the back row and handed the captaincy to the veteran open-side flanker Martyn Williams.
"Ryan wanted to play, could have played and is disappointed he isn't, but after talking it through with him we didn't feel we needed to take any risks," explained Gatland. "He's missed out on other World Cups, so why jeopardise him? We are happy with what he has done so far in terms of making a claim for selection. The 30-man squad will be named on Monday and without getting ahead of ourselves, we have told him how important he is to us."
Assuming Jones has not suddenly been struck deaf, those last few words will have been music to his ears. He has had his share of setbacks since making a name for himself on the Lions tour of New Zealand six years ago and until recently there were people out there wondering whether he would force a way into Gatland's elite party. In light of the coach's comments yesterday, he can stop fretting and start searching for his passport.
Up in Scotland, there are a few back-row forwards who would happily swap a pension for Jones's peace of mind. Alasdair Strokosch, Johnnie Beattie and Richie Vernon may well be contesting two places in Andy Robinson's squad, and as Vernon is the only one of the three involved against Italy at Murrayfield tomorrow – he starts, while his two rivals are not even on the bench – the No 8 knows he has a priceless advantage.
"I've been granted a chance, so I'll be looking to get my hands on the ball and be as dangerous as I can," said the Sale-bound forward from Glasgow, who will be flanked by two certainties for next month's tournament, Kelly Brown and John Barclay. "I hope I can break some tackles and get through a few gaps."
Down in the southern hemisphere, the build-up continued apace with unexpected news from Australia, regarded as the most serious threat to the All Blacks, and a significant bulletin from South Africa, who understand better than almost anyone what it takes to prevail over New Zealand on the big occasion.
Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, confirmed what everyone knew in advance – that the brilliant midfielder Matt Giteau was surplus to requirements – and then dropped his depth charge by revealing that James Horwill, the Super 15-winning Queensland Reds lock, would lead the side, rather than the incumbent skipper Rocky Elsom.
"It's in the nature of the sport, part and parcel," said Elsom. "I don't know if 'disappointed' is the right term. It's just the way it goes. Everyone in the side wants the same thing and we're pushing very hard for it."
The Springboks, meanwhile, were coming to terms with the loss of their magnificent flanker Juan Smith, one of the cornerstones of their World Cup triumph in 2007 and pretty damned good ever since. "I must stop lying to myself and realise that I'm not ready," said the man from Bloemfontein, who damaged an achilles tendon a few weeks ago. "I must put my team and the supporters first... The pain level is still seven out of 10. I can't describe how disappointed I feel."Reuse content