Martin Johnson could probably use a little good cheer as he struggles to unravel the small-print complexities of the Rugby Football Union's long-term agreement with the Premiership clubs in time for next month's international programme at Twickenham, so the news from Australia that Lote Tuqiri, the high-class Wallaby wing, might miss the forthcoming trip to Europe must be music to the new England manager's cauliflower ear.
Tuqiri has been struggling with knee trouble and underwent surgery last month – plenty early enough, the Wallaby hierarchy believed, to ensure his participation in the six-match tour, which begins with a Bledisloe Cup match against New Zealand in Hong Kong, of all places, and continues with Tests in Italy, France, England and Wales before a celebratory runaround with the Barbarians at Wembley Stadium. However, Tuqiri is so far short of peak fitness that he has yet to train properly. "If the knee isn't right, I won't be taking any risks," he said in Sydney yesterday. "If there's any doubt, there'll be no hesitation about pulling out."
England's meeting with the Australians on 15 November carries great significance, not simply because it represents the first proper examination of Johnson's side – the Pacific Islands, who play at Twickenham seven days earlier, should not pose a serious threat – but because the draw for the 2011 World Cup will be made in London in December. Seedings will be decided on International Rugby Board classification, and the only sure way of not sharing a pool with the All Blacks on their own New Zealand soil is to be ranked in the top four. Currently, England are fifth, two places behind the Wallabies.
Australia are already travelling light. The flanker Rocky Elsom has ruled himself out by moving to the Irish province Leinster, while the lock Dan Vickerman has done something similar by accepting an offer to study at Cambridge University. James Horwill, who played an impressive hand in the Wallaby engine room during the recent Tri-Nations tournament, is injured and off the tour; Wycliff Palu, the ball-carrying No 8, may well go the same way. Should Tuqiri, a sharp pain in England's rear end for more years than they care to remember, withdraw from the trip, the prospects of a red rose victory would be greatly enhanced.
The physical fall-out from last weekend's opening salvo of Heineken Cup fixtures started to emerge yesterday when Perpignan, bound for Swansea this weekend for a match with the Ospreys that could make or break the Welsh glitterati's European campaign, lost David Marty, their international centre, to ruptured knee ligaments.
With a long list of midfield injuries already affecting selection, the Catalans may now target their game at Leicester on 6 December for the big away win they feel they need to progress to the knock-out stage. A certain All Black called Daniel Carter will be on board by them, assuming he survives his country's forthcoming Grand Slam tour of the British Isles.