Stuart Lancaster is hopeful his depleted squad will at least retain the services of centre Billy Twelvetrees for their first Test with New Zealand at Eden Park on Saturday.
The Gloucester centre has been sidelined for a month with an ankle problem and will miss training again today, although England’s head coach insists he remains in the frame for selection.
Fears over the fitness of Pocklington-born hooker Rob Webber and prop Joe Marler have receded following their recovery from ankle and hip problems respectively and the front-row forwards are set to start the series opener against the All Blacks.
Instead, it is Twelvetrees’s troublesome ankle that is causing the biggest problem, with Lancaster set to name his team on Wednesday night from a squad that will be weakened by the absence of the Premiership final players of Northampton and Saracens, who will not be available until the second Test the following week.
“Billy still hasn’t trained fully so we’ll see how he progresses during the course of the week, but the clock is ticking now,” said Lancaster. “He’s the major one, everyone else should be good to go.”
Lancaster reported a clean bill of health on the players involved in Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final.
No 8 Billy Vunipola and fly-half Owen Farrell were suffering from cramp only. Lancaster was pleased with the performance of Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley, who completed his comeback from a shoulder injury as a second-half replacement in the 24-20 victory over Saracens.
“Dylan got on around 60 minutes and played the extra-time as well,” said Lancaster.
“He seemed to come through fine and he’ll definitely be on the plane as he’s an experienced player for us.
“As to whether Dylan will start the second Test, I’ll make that decision after the first Test.”
Lancaster remains adamant he has the depth of playing resources to trouble the All Blacks even when missing some of his most valued performers for the opening Test.
“We’re confident of the players we have and the side we can put out,” said the former Leeds player and coach.
“The Premiership is a very competitive league and there are a lot of good players who get developed in that league, so we should be confident.
“A lot of our players have played New Zealand twice and will be looking forward to the challenge on Saturday.”
Despite the absence of the likes of Farrell, Vunipola, Hartley and Courtney Lawes, among others, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen regards England as the most improved team in Test rugby and refuses to view their series opener as a foregone conclusion.
Hansen said: “Stuart has built depth in his side and a strong culture, so they will be a formidable opponent and one we are very excited about playing.
“Those who think England will be fielding a weak side in the first Test are completely under-estimating the quality of depth in the England squad.
“Make no mistake, England have a very strong desire and belief that they can win this series. This series gives both teams a great opportunity to put a stake in the ground, not only this year, but also for the 2015 World Cup.”
At Twickenham yesterday, a youthful and enterprising England XV were beaten by the Barbarians. All Blacks wing Hosea Gear scored two late tries to help the Barbarians restore their tarnished reputation.
The engaging non-cap international turned on Gear’s second-half scores, with Mamuka Gorgodze, Benson Stanley and Juan Martin Hernandez also crossing for the invitational outfit.
The Barbarians were roundly criticised after last summer’s lacklustre 40-12 England defeat.
However, there was not much to criticise about their performance yesterday as Dean Ryan’s men claimed the win.
England fly-half Henry Slade bagged 15 points including a try, as Dave Ewers and Charlie Sharples also crossed for an England XV led by former Leeds Tykes player Jon Callard.