Stuart Lancaster has drawn so many red lines through the names of leading English players just recently that the national coach is in danger of running out of ink, but there was just enough juice left in the ballpoint today to strike George Ford from the ever-dwindling list of top talent available for the opening Test with the All Blacks in Auckland, which would be next to unwinnable at the best of times. Lancaster is now likely to head for New Zealand with two of the country’s more mercurial outside-halves, Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani.
Ford, an exciting work in progress blessed with every rugby gift except size, is in need of surgery on a damaged shoulder – during the last game he played, for Bath at Harlequins a little under a fortnight ago, his discomfort was plain for all to see – and while his club coaches think he can get through Friday night’s Amlin Challenge Cup final with Northampton at Cardiff Arms Park, there is common agreement that an additional tour of duty in the land of the world champions would be asking a bit much. The 21-year-old, capped against Wales and Italy in March, is expected to go under the knife before the month is out and will be lucky to make the start of the new season in September.
Lancaster is already resigned to travelling without Owen Farrell of Saracens, his number one No 10, and Stephen Myler of Northampton. The two of them must square up to each other in the Premiership final at Twickenham on 31 May and will not, therefore, be in any state to face the All Blacks on the other side of the world just seven days later. Ford was guaranteed to start the game at Eden Park until this latest development on the orthopaedic front. Now, the much put-upon coach must come up with something else.
That something will be highly entertaining, even if it is not wholly successful. Burns has endured the torments of hell at Gloucester this season – his career at Kingsholm is now behind him – but according to Lancaster, he “always delivered” in training throughout the international programme before Christmas and the Six Nations after it. Cipriani has been lost in one dark circle of hell or another since the last of his England appearances in 2008, but his recent form for Sale has marked a welcome return to the bright light of day.
As the only other outside-half currently in Lancaster’s thinking is the profoundly inexperienced Exeter youngster Henry Slade – the first-choice inside centre Billy Twelvetrees can do a turn in the position, but the Gloucester man is struggling for fitness – it seems certain that Burns and Cipriani will be asked to hold the fort in Auckland, with Farrell and Myler returning to the mix for the remaining Tests in Dunedin and Hamilton. It is not the way the England hierarchy imagined things would pan out, but there is at least a possibility that one or other of the seat-of-the-pants boys will ask the New Zealanders a difficult question or two.
The positioning of the Test on 7 June at Eden Park, where the All Blacks have not lost in 20 years, has been the subject of furious debate ever since it became clear that England would be going there below strength. One of those denied a shot at the world champions in their most formidable fortress, the Saracens centre Brad Barritt, gave voice to his exasperation when, following a training session ahead of Saturday’s Heineken Cup final with Toulon, he was asked about this latest example of rugby overload.
“It’s bitterly disappointing,” said Barritt, who will be one of those heading out of Heathrow shortly after the Premiership final in nine days’ time and has a decent chance of featuring in the Dunedin Test on 14 June. “Playing for your country is always a dream so to miss out on an opportunity because you’ve been so successful at club level is difficult to get your head around.
“It’s been a fantastic season at Saracens: we’ve worked so hard to make it memorable and to reach the two biggest finals with your closest colleagues, the men you play your bread-and-butter rugby alongside, is something very special. You don’t want anything to detract from that feeling, but this fixture planning doesn’t make life any easier.”
Barritt said he was confident that the Saracens leadership group, of which he is a core member, would find ways of dealing with the reigning European champions from France if, as expected, the Londoners’ captain, Steve Borthwick, misses the final through injury.
“But we’re hoping against hope that he’s fit to play, because it would be heartbreaking if he couldn’t be there after putting so much of himself into this team,” the midfielder added. “We’ll be highly motivated whatever happens, but no one galvanises us like Steve.”