British and Irish Lion Tom Youngs forced to withdraw from England squad to care for wife
England, the country with the richest playing resources in world rugby, are in serious personnel trouble ahead of next month's tour of New Zealand, where they meet the All Blacks in a three-Test series.
A few hours after Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, confirmed that two Lions forwards – the Northampton prop Alex Corbisiero and Leicester's flanker Tom Croft – were not being considered for selection despite imminent recoveries from long-term injuries, there was another heavy blow to the red rose cause: the withdrawal of the hooker Tom Youngs.
The 27-year-old front-rower will stay in England to care for his wife Tiffany, who has fallen ill. Lancaster said the decision was "entirely right", while Richard Cockerill, who coaches Youngs at Leicester, noted that "these things are more important than rugby". It is not clear if Youngs, who suffered a rib injury during last weekend's league victory at Sale, will make himself available for the Midlanders in the immediate future.
While the Tigers man played second fiddle to Dylan Hartley in the Six Nations Championship earlier this year, his value to the summer tour party would have been immense – not least because Hartley is still recovering from a shoulder problem.
The hooking position is now of great concern to Lancaster, who may also lose his third choice, Rob Webber of Bath. Webber damaged his knee against Northampton six days ago and ended the evening on crutches.
Lancaster visited Exeter for talks with their rugby director, Rob Baxter, and it may well be that the uncapped youngster Luke Cowan-Dickie was one of the men under discussion.
Cowan-Dickie is not yet a regular first-team player at Sandy Park, but his performances in recent weeks have marked him out as an international forward in the making. Another hooker yet to feature at Test level, Dave Ward of Harlequins, is also a candidate for the long trip to the land of the silver fern.
Instead of announcing his 40-man squad next week – England will need extra bodies for an additional midweek game against the Christchurch-based Crusaders – Lancaster has been forced into the unsatisfactory position of naming it in dribs and drabs.
As things stand, he does not have the first idea of who will be available for the first Test in Auckland, where the All Blacks have not lost for 20 years, because the date, 7 June, is too close to the Premiership final at Twickenham, scheduled for 31 May. Until the finalists are confirmed following next weekend's play-offs, he is effectively planning blindfolded.
Only four of the 24 players who have started an England international match this season – the London Irish wing Marland Yarde, the Wasps lock Joe Launchbury and two Gloucester men, the wing Jonny May and No 8 Ben Morgan – are definitely available for the big game at Eden Park.
A third Gloucester player, the influential centre Billy Twelvetrees, suffered a bad ankle injury last weekend and is almost certain to miss the match – and, perhaps, the entire trip.
Things will be a little clearer after the concluding round of regular-season fixtures this weekend, when either Harlequins or Bath will reach the end of their Premiership campaign.
If Quins are the ones who miss out on the play-offs, the likes of Mike Brown, Danny Care and Chris Robshaw, the England captain, will immediately come into the reckoning for Auckland. If Bath are the fall-guys, Lancaster will know the probable identity of his outside-half and goal-kicker: the inexperienced but gifted George Ford.
If the coach had hoped that Corbisiero, an important figure on the loose-head side of the scrum, and Croft, the most athletic of England's back-row brigade, would regain fitness in time to play a part in New Zealand, he now accepts that the tour will come a little too early for them both.
"They've worked really hard to come back before the end of the season, but they will not have played enough rugby to be considered for such a tour," he said, adding that the Wasps wing Christian Wade was in the same boat. "It will be a short-term loss but a long-term gain as we head towards World Cup year."