London Irish director of rugby Brian Smith confirmed on Monday that loose head prop Alex Corbisiero has been ruled out for 8-10 weeks, thus meaning he will be absent from England's Six Nations campaign.
It is a big blow for the England squad. Over the autumn, Corbisiero returned to the line-up for the last two matches and the scrum was significantly bolstered. He was becoming a key part of a front five that, had it become settled, would have been able to challenge the best in the world.
They proved this when they played the South Africans, and more than held their own. Coincidentally or otherwise, that was the game that Corbisiero returned to the team.
The way the game has developed means that a team's front five can define where it ends up in the table. The Aviva Premiership this season is a case in point. As the season has passed its halfway point, the usual suspects are congregating at the summit. Leicester Tigers, Saracens and Northampton Saints all have established front fives, and are settled at the top of the table. More recently, Harlequins have added this side to their game, seeing them win the competition last year; they are top at the moment.
Admittedly, London Wasps are in the mix too this season, but it wouldn't surprise most observers if their challenge tailed away over the coming months. Gloucester were up there with them in the first few months, but they find themselves now 11 points off the top. Both traditionally have fairly weak front fives.
So, back to England. The unit of Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury has, in its short life, shown heaps of promise. With the returning Dylan Hartley in the mix, and players like Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola finding form for their club sides, the future looks rosy in this area for the national team.
Sadly, Corbisiero's injury leaves a rather large hole in this unit. While it is not as serious as an injury to Dan Cole - his replacements, Dave Wilson and Henry Thomas, are either average or unproven - it is still a major blow to their chances.
Joe Marler is the likely substitute, and while he has been growing as a player over the past few years, he has no where near the influence Corbisiero does, particularly in the scrum. In the autumn, Harlequin Marler was part of a front row that was expected to destroy a traditionally weak Australian outfit, but failed to do so. The reality was that the Aussies may even have had the upper hand in the tight exchanges. While this is certainly not entirely his fault, it is still worrying. The game against the French in the Six Nations will be a big test of how far he has come since then.
The other option is young Saracen Vunipola. He has been in fine form this season, with several nice touches around the park, including deft offloads and charging runs, leading to his surprise call-up in the autumn. He looked capable when coming off the bench, but is still incredibly young, especially in a position where it takes years to properly learn your trade. You must put in the hard work if you are to mix it with the best in the front row.
Luckily for England, the rest of their front five are injury free. Cole is truly one of the best tight head props in the world, mixing astute breakdown work with serious scrummaging power. Hartley has learnt to control his anger and is a handy man to have on your team in close games. Geoff Parling is as astute a line-out operator as there is, and has recently added a ball-carrying dimension to his game. Joe Launchbury, despite only making his debut in the autumn, has quickly become one of the first names on the teamsheet and was voted England's man of the series in the autumn.
So there is still plenty to be positive about for England. Nonetheless, Corbisiero will be missed.
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- Alex Corbisiero
- Joe Marler