It was not so very long ago that Tom Varndell, the fastest wing in Europe and the leading try-scorer in the Premiership campaign that ended at Twickenham on Saturday, expressed a degree of relief at not being selected for England's forthcoming Test series with the All Blacks. Less than a week, in fact. "I want to play for my country again and be a regular in the side," he said before Leicester's final defeat to Wasps, "but I want to build my way into the squad. That is much better than being thrown straight back in for a tour of New Zealand."
You could see his point, given the trauma he suffered on the summer trip to Australia in 2006, where he was handed an international debut he was ill-equipped to handle and found himself being thrown around like a rag doll by the ruthless Wallaby wing Lote Tuqiri. His confidence in shreds, Varndell spent part of the following domestic season on loan at Bedford in the second division. Since then, he has been very wary indeed of the "too much too soon" syndrome.
Imagine his feelings yesterday, then, as the Rugby Football Union announced that Varndell's direct opponent in the final, Paul Sackey, was carrying a knee injury and urgently required treatment of a different kind to that generally associated with the All Blacks. With Josh Lewsey awaiting minor surgery and the likes of Iain Balshaw and Lesley Vainikolo miles out of favour, the 22-year-old Tiger was next in line. So much for the rebuilding theory.
It may well be that he misses out on Test selection, given the presence of David Strettle of Harlequins and Topsy Ojo, the uncapped strike runner from London Irish. But Varndell is only one injury shy of having to play at some point, and could thus find himself facing a wing as potent as Sitiveni Sivivatu, New Zealand's Fiji-bred flier. He may have become stronger and more tactically astute over the last couple of years, but it is a big ask, all the same.
Rob Andrew, who is in temporary charge of the national side before Martin Johnson takes control next month, made a second change before England boarded the flight to Auckland yesterday. Dan Hipkiss, the Leicester centre who was called into the party as a consequence of Danny Cipriani's gruesome ankle injury, suffered a fractured cheekbone during the Twickenham final and was ruled out after a final medical check in the morning. Wasps' Dominic Waldouck, one of half a dozen bright young midfield things working their way through the rankings, will fill his seat in business class.
Andrew now has more centres than he knows what to do with: Mike Tindall, Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait can all play in the outside position, as can Waldouck; Olly Barkley and Toby Flood can both play in the inside position, as can Waldouck. If he really wanted to, the stand-in coach could add Peter Richards to that merry throng, although the whiz-bang sevens specialist from London Irish is travelling primarily as a scrum-half.
Flood passed muster at yesterday's medical session, declaring himself fully recovered from the roughing up he received from the Springbok loose forward Pedrie Wannenburg during the tour party's depressingly poor warm-up performance against the Barbarians on Sunday. Charlie Hodgson, who ran into the All Black flanker Jerry Collins and finished a distant second, was also given the all-clear, despite sporting a face full of stitches.
Ireland, who confront the All Blacks in Wellington this weekend, expect to have two injured players, the exciting new back Luke Fitzgerald and the hoary old back-rower Alan Quinlan, fit for the game. They then cross "the ditch" for a meeting with Australia, who have a new coach, the Super 14-winning New Zealander Robbie Deans, and seven uncapped players in a 30-man training squad. The Irish must fancy the second challenge a whole lot more than the first.
The Springbok hooker John Smit will become the first player to lead South Africa in 50 Tests when he and his countrymen take on Wales in Bloemfontein on Saturday. "He's too modest to admit it himself," said the coach, Peter de Villiers, "but it really is something big."Reuse content