England’s preparations for their final Test against New Zealand have been disrupted by injuries to four players as head coach Stuart Lancaster hints at substantial changes to his backline.
Half-backs Owen Farrell and Danny Care and centre pairing Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell picked up knocks in Saturday’s series-deciding 28-27 defeat in Dunedin.
Farrell (knee), Care (shoulder), Twelvetrees (ankle) and Burrell (ankle) effectively have until tomorrow – when the team is decided – to prove their readiness to face the All Blacks.
Even in the unlikely event the quartet are declared fit, England are facing a potential overhaul behind the scrum with Care, Twelvetrees and Burrell fighting for their places.
And Lancaster is unlikely to persevere with the experiment of playing Manu Tuilagi on the wing, paving the way for his restoration at outside centre with Chris Ashton filling the No 14 jersey.
Seven days after scattering the All Blacks at Eden Park, Tuilagi had been blunted by the move to his new position and his inability to out-sprint Ben Smith was telling.
Lancaster justifiably stresses that it was a far from disastrous evening for the 23-year-old, but he left little doubt there is no mileage in his retention out wide.
“Manu is certainly a very good option for us at 13 and I don’t think he let anyone down at all on the wing,” Lancaster said.
“I certainly think we need to make sure we have it as an option, there’s no doubt about it.
“Manu playing on the right wing was certainly not the reason why we went through that period of 20 minutes when the All Blacks increased their intensity and pressure.”
If Tuilagi returns to the midfield he could be joined by Kyle Eastmond, who Lancaster identifies as a “genuine contender for next weekend, definitely”.
England’s patience with Twelvetrees may have been depleted by the critical errors he made in the second half, thus undoing much of the outstanding touches he showed in the first.
Twelvetrees may yet be ruled out, taking the decision out of Lancaster’s hands, and the same fate could account for Burrell who was quiet at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Changes are also likely in the pack with Dylan Hartley, Billy Vunipola and Courtney Lawes possible starters, the latter as a replacement for Joe Launchbury who appears to be running on empty.
England were well beaten in Dunedin even if the scoreline suggests otherwise with three tries in 11 third-quarter minutes from Ben Smith, Julian Savea and Ma’a Nonu sweeping New Zealand clear.
“I don’t feel deflated. I feel frustrated that we’ve not managed to get the win that a lot of our players deserved,” added Lancaster.
“To win at the highest level against this team you’ve got to get your performance right for the full 80 minutes.
“We’ve shown that in a lot of areas, in the first Test definitely and for three quarters of the second Test, we are right there with them, going toe to toe with a side that’s won 16 consecutive games.
“And we’ve played them away from home at the end of a long, hard season.”
Successive defeats to a vastly more experienced New Zealand team will not have affected England’s World Cup preparations, but full-back Mike Brown accepts it is time to deliver a victory against the All Blacks.
“We’re not going to start applauding failure,” Brown said.
“We are in a business where winning counts and if we want to win a World Cup we have to beat teams like New Zealand.
“The final Test is another game that we want to win. We want to take some positives from this tour and that comes from winning a match. It would still be a big achievement to do it against the best team in the world on their home patch.
“We are judged on wins ultimately so we’ll be going out with all guns blazing next Saturday to put this disappointment behind us as quickly as possible.”
Captain Chris Robshaw called on his England team to produce one final assault on New Zealand by demanding they salvage some pride from their disappointing series defeat.
Although temporarily deflated by their inability to set up a decider, Robshaw insists England will give everything in their quest for a precious All Blacks scalp.
“We’ve come down to win a series and we haven’t done that. We’ve still got one more chance and come close on the last two occasions,” he said.
“We’ll throw everything at this last game. It’s a big finale and, hopefully, we can pull one back.
“I don’t think it’ll be hard at all to lift the team for this match because we still want to win a game down here.
“We all believe that’s still very much obtainable as long as we continue to be professional.
“There were some upset players in our changing room after the second Test
“Once again it’s gutting. We came out with all guns blazing trying to execute our game plan and couldn’t have started better.
“It was a great first half from all the guys, but unfortunately in the second half we lost a bit of momentum.”
It will take a monumental effort to prevent the All Blacks from amassing a 17th successive victory when the series concludes at Waikato Stadium, but Robshaw is adamant it can be done.
“We want to make sure we get a win before New Zealand come to us in the autumn,” he said.
“It will be a huge challenge to do it down here in their own backyard.”
New Zealand: B. Smith, Jane, C. Smith, Nonu, Savea, Cruden,Woodcock, Coles, O. Franks, Retallick, Whitelock, Messam, McCaw, Kaino, A. Smith. Replacements: Barrett for Cruden (51), Crockett for Woodcock (66), Mealamu for Coles (60), Faumuina for O Franks (66), Tuipulotu for Retallick (78), Vito for Messam (71), Perenara for A. Smith (80). Not Used: Fekitoa.
Tries: B. Smith, Savea, Nonu. Cons: Cruden, Barrett. Pens: Cruden 2, Barrett.
England: Brown, Tuilagi, Burrell, Twelvetrees, Yarde, Farrell, Marler, Webber, Wilson, Launchbury, Parling, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan, Care. Replacements: Ashton for Burrell (80), Youngs for Marler (72), Hartley for Webber (48), Lawes for Launchbury (57), Vunipola for Morgan (57), Mullan for Care (73). Not Used: Brookes, Burns.
Tries: Yarde, Brown, Ashton. Cons: Farrell 3; Pens: Farrell 2. Sin Bin: Farrell (59).