- Harlequins full back should be training next week after hip knock
- Decision to be made on Dylan Hartley in due course
Stuart Lancaster watched this weekend’s Aviva Premiership semi-final ties surrounded by spreadsheets, diligently calculating possible combinations for England’s first Test against New Zealand in Auckland while a pair of tense encounters wound down.
As it happened, wins for Saracens and Northampton Saints mean that he will be able to field players from Leicester Tigers and Harlequins on June 7 at Eden Park – including flanker Chris Robshaw, who has captained in 24 of the last 27 internationals.
While being unable to select Premiership finalists is far from ideal, Lancaster is relieved to have a squad to work with this week at the Lensbury Club in Teddington.
Of course, injuries could still alter any plans. London Wasps must travel to Paris for the second leg of their Rugby Champions Cup play-off against Stade Francais next Saturday. Over the same weekend, Bath face Northampton in the Amlin Challenge Cup final and Saracens look to secure Heineken Cup glory by beating Toulon.
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It is a case of keeping fingers crossed for Lancaster, who is also hopeful that Billy Twelvetrees, Rob Webber, Dylan Hartley and Anthony Allen – all of whom have been on the sidelines for the past weeks – and Mike Brown, who suffered a hip injury in Harlequins’ loss at Allianz Park, can reach full fitness in time to travel.
“We’re still just over two and a half weeks away from that first Test, so there’s a long way to go,” he said.
“Experience tells me you should get all your cards ready and deal them nearer the time. We’ve got some questions that remain over Billy Twelvetrees and Rob Webber. We also want to give Dylan Hartley as long as possible to make the plane.
“Mike Brown took a knock and we need to look at Anthony Allen too. We’ll see how that plays out in the next ten days, but by the time we get to New Zealand we need to have a clear idea of how we are going to reintegrate those players who arrive after the Aviva final in time for the second Test.
“I’m optimistic on Mike. If Dylan can be fit for the Aviva final, that is a big indication for us – he is very much in Northampton’s care at the moment. Rob and Billy are making progress. I’m sure with intensive treatment they can get on the plane.”
Admitting that Hartley’s shoulder complaint – which the Northampton captain picked up in 22-16 defeat to Leicester at the end of March – has not quite healed as expected, Lancaster moved on to look at his options at hooker.
With Tom Youngs staying in England to care for his wife, Webber in a fitness battle and David Paice ruled out, the number two shirt seems to be up for grabs.
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Refusing to hide from how tough it would be to make an international debut against the All Blacks in New Zealand, Lancaster did stress that this adversity could become a golden opportunity.
“Our depth is going to be tested [at hooker]. We are looking at bringing in the likes of Dave Ward, Joe Gray, Rob Buchanan and Luke Cowan-Dickie. There’s no doubt about it, some young lads are going to get some chances.
“It’s a pretty unique situation to have your top four hookers unavailable, but that top four might not be the top four next year if someone takes this opportunity.”
Finishing by taking stock of the task in hand, Lancaster was reluctant to look ahead to June’s Test series. Instead, he insisted how crucial the coming weeks will be in terms of groundwork.
“I’m sure when we get there and feel the buzz, it’ll be huge, but it’s more about dealing with the here and now, preparing properly and making sure we get the right team so we can work on them together.
“It’s a big logistical challenge to pull all of that together with the Barbarians game as well, but we’ll be ready to go when we fly out next Tuesday.”
Lancaster also touched on Jonny Wilkinson, whose retirement from rugby was confirmed today.