ENGLAND have been praying for good news on the injury front for much of the summer, with precious little in the way of a response from on high. That changed yesterday when Martin Johnson awoke to the glad tidings that Juan Martin Hernandez, the Maradona of rugby, had failed to recover from a bad knee injury - far worse than the one currently affecting the threatened red-rose captain Lewis Moody - in time to make the Argentina squad for the forthcoming World Cup.
Hernandez, a spellbindingly good full-back whose performances in the outside-half position helped the Pumas to an applecart-upsetting third place at the last tournament in 2007 - they beat France twice, plus Ireland and Scotland, in advancing to a podium finish - should now be at the peak of his powers. Unfortunately for the South Americans, who meet England in Dunedin on 10 September, the ligament damage he suffered while playing for the Parisian club Racing Metro in March has yet to clear up.
“While it was always in our heads that he wasn’t going to be with us, the loss of his qualities as a player and a person is important,” admitted the coach, Santiago Phelan, who has selected 10 veterans of the ’07 campaign, including the centre Felipe Contepomi, who has been playing alongside Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon and will lead a party boasting 25 Europe-based personnel. Among the Premiership contingent are the Leicester prop Marcos Ayerza and the Harlequins lock Tomas Vallejos.
If the news from Buenos Aires put a spring in Johnson’s step, the England manager will be even happier if the likes of Mike Tindall and Steve Thompson, first-choice members of the Webb Ellis Trophy-winning side of 2003, can convince him of their continuing value by turning in quality performances against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. Neither was involved in the tight victory over the same opposition at Twickenham last weekend, and each faces challenges on the selection front: Tindall from the young centre Manu Tuilagi, who made a try-scoring Test debut five days ago, and Thompson from the current senior hooker Dylan Hartley - not to mention a resurgent Lee Mears.
“I think I can win the shirt back,” Thompson said, “but I suppose we all think like that. It’s the strength of the squad, which is more competitive now than it has been in a long while. If you’re given an opportunity now, you really have to take it. If you play well, there’s always a chance of staying in for the next match. If someone is off his game, someone will come in and make the most of the chance.”
Four years ago, when England reached a second successive global final, Thompson was in injury-enforced retirement, his front-rower’s bull neck having started to rebel against the constant punishment meted out in the darkened recesses of scrum and maul. He was not entirely unhappy about it - “I think I was drunk when they played that tournament,” he said - but as his fledgling coaching career with the French club Brive began to take shape, second thoughts persuaded him to take a second opinion on his neck problems. Within months, he was back on the field.
“I never thought I’d fall out of love with rugby, but I was out of love with it for a while then,” he acknowledged. “When you’re battering yourself in training and your heart isn’t in it, this game is a hard one to play. I’d been playing back-to-back rugby at Test level for five or six seasons - more Tests than anyone else at that stage - and physically I was getting weaker. I was burnt out.”
And now? “I’m training harder than ever, my neck is stronger and more flexible than it’s ever been and I’ve lost some weight. I’m nowhere near as heavy as I was in ’07. That makes it an absolute nightmare getting shirts. When you ask for a 21-inch neck, the bottom bit tends to be like a tent. I have to wrap the things around me sometimes.”
Wales, meanwhile, are prepared to take two of their own long-serving front-rowers to the World Cup, even if they miss the entire warm-up programme through injury. The hooker Matthew Rees, who has been captaining the side of late, and the loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins are finding it frustratingly difficult to shake off their orthopaedic niggles - neck problems in the case of Rees; toe and calf issues in the case of Jenkins - and there is little likelihood of either man featuring at the Millennium Stadium.
Even so, their flights to New Zealand appear to have been booked. “There are players who warrant a certain amount of special attention and looking at how important they’ve been to us in the past, they fall into that category,” said the forwards coach Robin McBryde.
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