England has the best-resourced union in the sport and possesses one of the richest histories in the game stretching back to 1871, yet it is conceivable that they have never been longer odds to win a game than they are this morning.
Stuart Lancaster’s men are 16-1 to defeat New Zealand in Auckland.
A combination of the hosts’ status as world champions, their record of not being beaten at Eden Park in two decades, and the fact England are without around 20 squad members – British and Irish Lions and Premierhship finalists included – has added to the feeling that they are overwhelming underdogs in the first Test.
The loss of Leeds-born Danny Care to an innocuous training ground injury that reduced his team-mates and coaching staff to initial hysterics further diminishes their prospects.
This is the first of three Tests on successive Saturdays and ever since the date was set just seven days after the Premiership final, England were always going to be up against it.
To salvage anything out of this month’s tour, the focus has been on a fuller-strength squad being competitive in the second and third Tests.
Despite the huge odds against them, assistant coach Andy Farrell has revealed a steely resolve within the camp to deliver only the nation’s third victory on Kiwi soil.
“These players all want to prove they can do it on the biggest stage and there’s no bigger stage than Eden Park,” said Farrell.
“Belief comes with hard work. It’s about your preparation and that’s what we’ve always been about. We all know our jobs inside out. Our work ethic off the pitch has been fantastic so why wouldn’t they believe?
“They’ve done the work, now they need to go out there and play the game in the moment. Don’t play the occasion.
“The people who don’t give us a chance are those who don’t know the journey we’ve been on so far.
“We’ve been getting better fairly rapidly, have taken in some big games and challenges. But this is as big as it gets.”
The farcical circumstances which surrounded Care’s withdrawal only emphasised their ill-fated preparations.
Care has been replaced by Ben Youngs at scrum-half because of a shoulder injury sustained during a comical fall at training on Monday that saw him slip after stubbing his toe while attempting a kick.
England’s amusement – Farrell describing the fall as “absolutely hilarious” – vanished 48 hours later when the extent of the damage was revealed and Care was ruled out.
“It was Danny’s own fault actually. It was a rubbish kick,” said Farrell. “He stubbed his foot on the floor and missed the ball completely. He fell over and hurt his shoulder.
“It was absolutely hilarious. I burst out laughing, but then realised it wasn’t too funny.
“It was a little grubber which he mis-kicked. He won’t be doing it again. I’ve got it on tape. I showed it to all the lads the next day – it was hilarious.
“But it wasn’t quite as good two days later when he wasn’t playing in the Test match. Anyway, we’ll get over it.”
Care is expected to resume training early next week with a view to returning in time for the second Test in Dunedin a week today.
The Harlequins half-back has been the catalyst for England’s improved attacking game this season and his absence means a jet-lagged Lee Dickson will start on the bench three days after landing in New Zealand along with 13 other Northampton and Saracens players who contested the Premiership final.
Farrell said: “Lee has slotted in pretty well. His jet lag has been a very smooth transition. He seems fine and is very chirpy.”
The All Blacks – who provide England with their first appointment of the Autumn Internationals – are seeking their 15th straight victory.
Ball-carriers Liam Messam, Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu are expected to put the greatest strain on England’s inexperienced 10-12 axis of Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond.
Between them fly-half Burns and inside centre Eastmond – each England’s fourth choice in their position – have five caps.
Furthermore, Burns’s form has been dismal this season while the diminutive Eastmond, who must shackle Nonu, has not played for over a month after falling out of favour at Bath.
England have turned to their third choice hooker, Pocklington-born Rob Webber and must hope he blows away the cobwebs as quickly as possible after a five-week spell on the sidelines with a knee injury.