One RFU committee member said last night that southern hemisphere countries had already been contacted regarding possible matches in that period. France had said they would still turn up for their date at Twickenham on 1 March, but it is unlikely that they will be permitted to do so by their three partners, who have extracted a pledge that none of the four will play England between January and April next year.
That leaves the RFU with two dates to fill and it will need high-quality opposition to appease the players, the fans and, most critically, the Twickenham debenture holders, who have been threatening to sue England's hierarchy if they are robbed of what many regard as a sacrosanct social and sporting tournament.
And the suspicion that something is in the pipeline was reinforced by the former England captain Will Carling, who yesterday hinted that Twickenham was already drawing up plans to fill gaps in the international fixture list between January and March next year. When told that no matches could be arranged in that period, the England centre said: "I don't know. I have heard differently."
The choice confronting the RFU is straightforward. It can enter the Last Chance Saloon and throw in its lot with the other four unions, or it can leave town and set up camp south of the Equator.
The other four unions yesterday issued a statement which read: "The [Five Nations television] committee has finalised the dates for the Four Nations' Championship to be played next year between January and April 1997 on a home and away basis, involving France, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
"This decision will be reported to a meeting of the full committee of these unions next week. Between now and then, discussions will take place in one final attempt to persuade the RFU to save the Five Nations' Championship in its current form."
Carling, who has opposed the RFU's independent negotiations which led to an pounds 87.5m five year deal permitting BSkyB to hold the exclusive live broadcasting rights for all matches, club and representative, on English soil, provided some unexpected support for the men he once famously described as "57 old farts''.
When asked how big a blow expulsion from the Five Nations' Championship would be, he said yesterday: "It depends what the alternative international rugby would be. If it's home and away with the southern hemisphere, you can't get better than that.
"What the game needs is to provide the best possible rugby for the national side and develop the game to a standard that can cope with the southern hemisphere, but I still think there needs to be terrestrial television coverage of rugby at a high level."
How England's fixtures for 1996-97 could look
23 November Italy home
30 November New Zealand Barbarians home
14 December Argentina home
1 February Scotland home
1 March France home
*February New Zealand home
*Early-mid March South Africa home
July Australia away
*September South Africa away
October New Zealand I home
November New Zealand II home
November Australia home
*Early December France home
Mid-December Scotland (Calcutta Cup) home
= scheduled Five Nations matches at Twickenham
*= possible alternative fixtures, with the emphasis on the southern hemisphere
Additionally, France and Scotland have both indicated their willingness to play England, but if they take part in a Four Nations tournament they have pledged not to play England from January to April inclusive. So England would have to find, or create, gaps in the domestic schedule to avoid a clash with Courage League and Pilkington Cup ties.Reuse content