Alex Sanderson, the Saracens loose forward who might have added significantly to his five England caps but for seemingly endless injury problems in the neck and back departments, will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing another bout of surgery this week. Sanderson played in the Boxing Day derby with Harlequins, but missed the follow-up Premiership match at Bath last Saturday - an absence the Saracens hierarchy put down to a stomach complaint.
Some stomach complaint. It now appears that the 25-year-old flanker hurt his lower neck during the Quins game, damage that required immediate surgery. Saracens do not expect to see him again this season - his recuperation will take a minimum of four months - and there are those attached to the club who wonder whether he will return at all. Sanderson has barely played for the Watford-based club since moving from Sale in the spring of last year, and there are now serious doubts concerning his long-term future in the professional game.
Saracens insisted yesterday that this was a fresh injury, rather than a recurrence of the problem that incapacitated him in the early months of the campaign. "Obviously this is disappointing news for Saracens and England, but Alex will receive the best possible care and rehabilitation and we are looking forward to seeing him back on the pitch soon," said Steve Diamond, the head coach, who worked with Sanderson at Sale before heading south last season.
However, Diamond plans to "look at the squad over the next few weeks to determine our playing resources for the remainder of the season", a clear indication that Saracens will recruit a back-row forward sooner rather than later. They have little choice in the matter. Richard Hill, the England and Lions flanker commonly regarded as their best player, is recovering from knee reconstruction surgery, while the captain, Hugh Vyvyan, is also struggling for fitness. At the moment, Saracens have only Taine Randell, the former New Zealand skipper, and three youngsters - Dave Seymour, Ben Skirving and Ben Russell - in back-row circulation.
It could get worse before it gets better. Martin Corry's dislocated elbow, suffered during Leicester's highly impressive victory at Gloucester on Sunday, means Vyvyan will probably be called into England's Six Nations championship squad the moment he declares himself fit. Saracens also expect to lose Seymour to the national under-21s. If they fail to recruit, they could easily find themselves without specialist loose-forward cover on the bench for important Premiership fixtures.
Newcastle's injury problems are nowhere near as acute, but the increasingly accomplished Tynesiders could have done without losing David Walder. Walder, who helped his side make light of Jonny Wilkinson's most recent injury lay-off with some strong performances at outside-half before dropping to the full-back position, wrenched a knee cartilage during the narrow victory over Sale at the weekend.
He may yet be fit enough to sit on the bench, although Mark Wilkinson, the less celebrated brother of you know who, is the more likely option. There is some good news on the substitution front, however. Mark Mayerhofler, the former All Black centre, and Matt Thompson, who has enjoyed spells as Newcastle's first-choice hooker, will be among the replacements, having recovered from a leg injury and a viral infection respectively. Colin Charvis, outstanding for Wales during the autumn internationals, moves to the open-side flank because his countryman, Cory Harris, arrived at Kingston Park too late to be registered for European activity. Mike McCarthy fills the hole in the back row.