Luke Cowan-Dickie injury uncertainty poses problem for England and Exeter

Uncertainty continues to hang over the World Cup prospects of the England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie with the Rugby Football Union looking at ways to accelerate his return from ankle and neck problems. The 29-year-old saw a specialist on Thursday for a further assessment, but Exeter’s director of rugby, Rob Baxter, admits no one is able to say when the Cornishman will be able to resume playing.

There has been speculation in France that Cowan-Dickie’s summer move to Montpellier may be under threat for medical reasons, with the player understood to be suffering from some nerve damage in his neck. Baxter says Cowan-Dickie, who has not played since injuring his ankle against Northampton in early January, is like “a caged lion” having been forced to sit out the entire Six Nations championship.

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“He is having an assessment today, which will give him some guidance, and I think he’s got another one booked in a few weeks’ time,” said Baxter. “The RFU are also investigating various things to see if there’s anything they can do to speed up his recovery because obviously they’re concerned World Cup-wise.

Steve Borthwick has added former Ireland full-back Felix Jones to his England coaching team in an appointment that begins in 2024.

Jones will end his role as assistant to South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus after the holders' World Cup defence this autumn.

The 35-year-old started coaching the Springboks' defence in 2019 but is also responsible for liaising with their European-based players. It has yet to be revealed what his England duties will be.

"Our immediate focus is on preparation for the World Cup," Borthwick said. "We are continuing to build our programme to be in a position to compete to be world champions once again.

"At the same time, I also want to ensure we are preparing for long-term success for this England team and I'm excited that a coach as talented as Felix is joining next year.

"Felix has been competing at the top of world rugby during his four years with South Africa and will bring invaluable experience to our set up.

Jones is the second member of South Africa's 2019 World Cup-winning management team recruited by Borthwick, with Aled Walters set to join from Leicester as head of strength and conditioning at the end of the season.

Sinfield and Wigglesworth are currently Borthwick's only confirmed assistants for the global showpiece in France, but a forwards coach and additional specialist coaches are also being sought. PA Media

“Everything is being poured into it and I feel a bit sorry for the guy because he’s a bit like a live experiment for everybody. There’s nothing saying definitively here and now that he won’t be fit by the end of the season, but there’s also nothing saying definitively he will be. The issue at the moment is nerve recovery and for any kind of nerve damage that just takes time. He is like a caged lion at the moment, prowling around, trying to get on with things.”

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter
Exeter head coach Rob Baxter has played down talk of a crisis at the club. Photograph: Ben Whitley/PA

Cowan-Dickie’s soon-to-be employers Montpellier are Exeter’s opponents in the last 16 of the Champions Cup on Sunday, but Baxter says he has heard nothing as yet from the French club about the deal not happening. “I don’t think anyone’s sitting here thinking the move is off,” he said. “Everyone is thinking Luke’s going to make a decent recovery and he’s going to be ready to go and he’s going to be a very good player. We haven’t had any indication that’s going to change.”

Baxter already has his hands full after Exeter’s poor display at Bath on Sunday that has prompted a selection shake-up, with scrum-half Sam Maunder now sidelined for at least nine months with a serious knee injury. Baxter, however, has rejected suggestions, that the club is in crisis after a number of senior players agreed more lucrative deals elsewhere.

“I get the impression that people are shocked or surprised, but I could have told you three years ago this was likely to happen,” said Baxter, whose team secured a remarkable domestic and European title double in 2020. “The writing was on the wall the minute the salary cap changed and we took the decision to keep our players on full salaries.

Champions Cup

Leicester v Edinburgh Fri 8pm
Sharks v Munster Sat 12.30pm
Stormers v Harlequins Sat 3pm
Leinster v Ulster Sat 5.30pm
La Rochelle v Gloucester Sat 5.30pm
Exeter v Montpellier Sun 12.30pm
Toulouse v Bulls Sun 3pm
Saracens v Ospreys Sun 3pm

Challenge Cup

Bristol v Clermont Fri 8pm
Scarlets v Brive Fri 8pm
Toulon v Cheetahs Sat 12.30pm
Stade Français v Lyon Sat 3pm
Benetton v Connacht Sat 3pm
Glasgow v Dragons Sat 5.30pm
Lions v Racing 92 Sat 5.30pm
Cardiff v Sale Sat 8pm

All ties over a single leg; times BST.

“This was always going to be a challenging year for us. I told the board that three years ago. From the outside it looks like shock and horror, but the reality is we’ve prepared for it. If we had players no one else wanted, I would have some concerns. This was always going to happen. We’re kind of in that perfect storm a little bit.”

Baxter shed further light on the former Scotland captain Stuart Hogg’s decision to retire from rugby at the end of the year at the age of 30. “I have to say that when he first talked about it, it was a bit of a surprise. But when he talked about the reasons, it made a lot of sense.

“I think rugby is less enjoyable for him now because of the physical preparation it’s taking [to play]. He’s someone for whom enjoyment has always been a key factor. If that starts to get tougher because of your physical condition it takes a lot out of the whole point of playing rugby.”