England, rather than making a decision they might later regret, have not been rushing to fill the large hole in their Rugby World Cup plans left by Andrew Sheridan’s abrupt exit. The delay is understandable because Martin Johnson and his coaches are aware certain fitness issues cannot be fudged much longer. If Lewis Moody and Mark Cueto are to play any significant part in this tournament, their match readiness has to be tested sooner rather than later.
Sources close to the squad suggest a final call is likely to be delayed until after Sunday’s game against Georgia. England may suffer further injuries against the muscular Georgians and, among other issues, Johnson also needs to find out if Moody and Cueto are properly on the mend. If they were to remain out for the next fortnight, any replacements would have scant opportunity to acclimatise.
Nor is it quite as simple as whistling up another prop, with Northampton’s Paul Doran-Jones the most obvious candidate. England already have four – Dan Cole, Matt Stevens, Alex Corbisiero and David Wilson – in New Zealand and it could make more sense for Johnson to consider plugging other areas of his squad, particularly if Moody and Cueto suffer fresh setbacks.
Neither has featured in the tournament after picking up injuries during the warm-up games last month. Moody, as the squad’s captain, will be granted as much time as possible to prove his knee ligament has healed but England ideally want him to be available for their final Pool B game, against Scotland. As with Cueto, there must be a temptation to force the issue by asking him to play against Georgia.
Should the medics decree that is not possible, Johnson will have to consider summoning another back-row forward and/or a wing. With Hendre Fourie still nursing a strained hamstring, Harlequins’ Chris Robshaw would be the most likely back-row call-up, although Exeter’s Tom Johnson, Leicester’s Thomas Waldrom, Gloucester’s Luke Narraway, Wasps’ Joe Worsley and Northampton’s Phil Dowson would also merit consideration. Gloucester’s Charlie Sharples, who narrowly missed out on the original party, tops the list of stand-by wings.
Amid all the permutations, though, it is impossible not to feel for the luckless Sheridan, ruled out by yet another bout of shoulder trouble. The Sale prop has had three shoulder operations in two years, two of them after dislocating his left shoulder playing for his club in October 2009. He does not yet know if he will require further surgery but his sense of disappointment was obvious enough. “It’s a big blow to leave the World Cup through injury, but it’s a significant injury to the shoulder so I have to deal with that and get on with it now,” he said. “I didn’t know the exact incident that had caused it during the game; initially it just felt a bit sore, but a couple of days post-match it was still pretty painful and that’s when I had the scan. I think everyone knows shoulders are quite complicated structures. I just have to get on with it and see what the results are after I have seen the specialist. I am well acquainted with the surgeon now. He will give me some good advice and see if I need an operation.”
Corbisiero, the likeliest beneficiary, was as sympathetic as anyone. “Sheri worked really hard over the summer to come back from injury and has put in two very good performances,” he said. “I was aware he had a niggle from the weekend but I didn’t realise the severity of it until I heard a couple of the boys talking about it.
“I wish him all the best. He’s a world-class player and a big hero of mine. The squad will miss him, but we’ve got to get on with it and go forward as a team. When my opportunity comes I’ll be ready to take it and make the most of it. There’s four of us [props] left here and it’s going to be a big job for all of us. Losing someone with the experience of Sheridan is tough, but it will make us stronger and pull together.”
With Courtney Lawes banned for two weeks for striking Argentina’s Mario Ledesma with his knee, Tom Palmer is likely to start in the second row against Georgia, possibly alongside Simon Shaw. Corbisiero, Stevens and Ben Youngs will also be hopeful of making their first starts of the tournament.