Less than 96 hours after New Zealand, the number one side in the world by so far it isn't funny, named a European tour party blessed with all the talents, the England head coach, Andy Robinson, came up with a squad for the meeting at Twickenham on Sunday week that looks so wet behind the ears, it might have been wearing swimming trunks. Eleven months shy of their defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy, the red-rose army do not look as ready as Wales, on whom they put an avalanche of points last season, let alone the bearers of the silver fern.
Robinson drafted no fewer than seven uncapped players into his 30-man elite group for the contest with Richie McCaw and company - a fixture designed to celebrate the £100m completion of the Twickenham "bowl". It is highly unlikely that the new south stand will be fully operational come the big day. Only an optimist of the most extreme variety could conceivably expect the England team to be any closer to the finished article.
Yet in fairness to Robinson and his fellow selectors - the attack coach Brian Ashton, defence strategist Mike Ford, forwards specialist John Wells and the newly appointed director of elite rugby, Rob Andrew - there was precious little else they might have done to strengthen their side's hand against the favourites for the 2007 World Cup, which begins in France next September. The casualties, such as they were, could not be described as unfortunate, for few of them had shown an ounce of form over the opening eight weekends of the campaign. Not Mike Tindall or Mike Catt, not Harry Ellis or Joe Worsley or Simon Shaw.
There was no sense whatever in Robinson considering early returns for Lawrence Dallaglio or Phil Vickery, two World Cup winners from 2003. The veteran Wasps forwards are up and running again after long periods of enforced inactivity, but they are barely into their stride - a fact underlined by their struggles to subdue the Frenchmen of Castres in last weekend's Heineken Cup opener.
Had they been able, the selectors would certainly have named Jonny Wilkinson of Newcastle and Olly Barkley of Bath as midfield options, Steve Thompson of Northampton as the fulcrum of the front row, and Steve Borthwick, the Bath captain, as a leading light in the line-out. Unfortunately all four injured themselves at highly inconvenient moments. Thompson is back on the gallops, but undercooked. The other three are still frozen solid, orthopaedically speaking.
Yet only three of the newcomers - the highly rated Newcastle midfielder Toby Flood, the 20-year-old Gloucester centre Anthony Allen and the 34-year-old Sale prop Stuart Turner - are included as a result of the fitness complications. The others, from Olly Morgan of Gloucester and Paul Sackey of Wasps in the outside backs, to Tom Rees of Wasps at open-side flanker via Shaun Perry of Bristol at scrum-half, would probably have been included even had Robinson and his colleagues had a full complement of experienced internationals from which to choose.
It is perfectly possible that when the coaches make their critical announcements of team and captain on Monday, all of these Test-day virgins will find themselves out of the starting XV. But at least three of them will be in the 22-man squad to face the All Blacks, and given the rate of attrition now customary in such matches, they will probably play an active role. Quite what they will make of life against the Daniel Carters and Jerry Collinses of this world is anyone's guess, including theirs.
Worryingly for Robinson, the strongest of the All Blacks' many strengths is their midfield - precisely the area in which England are most exposed in terms of international know-how. Allen, the form inside centre in the Guinness Premiership and the player tipped by no less an authority than Brian O'Driscoll to make a name for himself at the most exalted level of the game, is nothing more than a babe in arms - albeit an unusually mature, Orson Welles-type prodigy. Yet if England decide to keep him on the bench, they will have to play Jamie Noon, a specialist outside centre, out of position. It is an alarming thought, given the supreme calibre of the opposition.
On the far side of the Severn Bridge, the Welsh hierarchy had a far easier time identifying the 32 players charged with taking on Australia, the Pacific Islands, Canada and New Zealand over the next month. As expected, the Llanelli Scarlets outside-half Stephen Jones was awarded the captaincy ahead of the Toulouse-based Gareth Thomas, whose lack of geographical proximity counted against him in the mind of the head coach, Gareth Jenkins.
Only one uncapped player, the Scarlets centre Gavin Evans, was included in a party shot through with attacking panache. Unsurprisingly, the brilliant Ospreys midfielder James Hook, hero of the Heineken Cup victory over Sale last Friday night, was picked to understudy the new captain. However, there was no place for the gifted Lions No 8 Michael Owen. Jenkins decided against rushing him back from a serious shoulder injury.
"Michael has leadership qualities in abundance; he's one of our jewels," the coach said of the man who guided Wales through the business end of their Six Nations Grand Slam campaign in 2005. "But this series of internationals has come at the wrong time for him. He simply doesn't have enough on the clock."
Had he been fit for longer, Owen might have made a pitch for the captaincy. The Ospreys prop Duncan Jones and the Cardiff Blues flanker Martyn Williams were also considered. But in the end, it came down to a straight fight between Stephen Jones and Thomas.
"I need access to my captain on a weekly, daily, even hourly basis," Jenkins explained. "Gareth couldn't offer me that. But it is a mark of the man that he is totally behind my decision. His reaction was humbling, because he was so supportive, understanding and realistic. He'll have a big part to play for us."
Mind the age gap: England's stellar youth and journeyman pro
The Gloucester Academy back line exploded into Premiership rugby last season, with 20-year-old Allen making the most prolonged bang, if not the loudest one. A product of Millfield School, he has everything but a top-class kicking game - and he is working on that.
A journeyman prop made good, Turner played for Waterloo, Orrell, Worcester and Rotherham before pitching up at Sale in 2001. "Winning the Premiership last season was special," the 34-year-old said yesterday, "but this is just unbelievable."
Home nations' squads for autumn internationals
England squad (International match v New Zealand, Twickenham, 5 Nov): Backs: I Balshaw, O Morgan (both Gloucester), J Lewsey (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale), P Sackey (Wasps), B Cohen (Northampton), M Tait (Newcastle), A Allen (Gloucester), J Noon, T Flood (both Newcastle), C Hodgson (Sale), A Goode (Leicester), P Richards (Gloucester), S Perry (Bristol). Forwards: A Sheridan (Sale), P Freshwater (Perpignan), J White (Leicester), S Turner (Sale), G Chuter (Leicester), L Mears (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), T Palmer (Wasps), C Jones (Sale), P Sanderson (Worcester), L Moody (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps), M Lund (Sale), M Corry (Leicester), J Forrester (Gloucester).
Wales squad (for autumn Tests v Australia, Pacific Islands, Canada and New Zealand): Backs: K Morgan (Newport Gwent Dragons), L Byrne (Ospreys), M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys), Gareth Thomas (Toulouse), H Luscombe (Harlequins), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Evans (Llanelli), C Sweeney (Newport Gwent), G Henson, J Hook (both Ospreys), S Jones (capt), D Peel (both Llanelli), M Phillips (Cardiff), G Cooper (Newport Gwent). Forwards: G Jenkins (Cardiff), A Jones, D Jones (both Ospreys), C Horsman (Worcester), R Thomas (Cardiff), H Bennett (Ospreys), M Rees (Llanelli), B Cockbain (Ospreys), I Gough (Newport Gwent), R Sidoli (Cardiff), I Evans, A Wyn Jones (both Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff), Gavin Thomas (Llanelli), J Thomas (Ospreys), A Popham (Llanelli), R Jones (Ospreys).
Scotland training squad (for autumn Tests v Romania, Pacific Islanders and Australia): Backs: M Blair (Edinburgh), C Cusiter (Borders), R Dewey, M Di Rollo, P Godman (all Edinburgh), A Henderson, R Lamont (both Glasgow Warriors), S Lamont (Northampton), B MacDougall, C MacRae (both Borders), G Morrison, D Parks (both Glasgow), C Paterson, H Southwell, S Webster (all Edinburgh). Forwards: J Beattie (Glasgow), K Brown (Borders), D Callam (Edinburgh), R Ford, S Gray (both Borders), D Hall (Edinburgh), J Hamilton (Leicester), N Hines (Perpignan), A Hogg, A Jacobsen (both Edinburgh), A Kellock (Glasgow), G Kerr (Borders), E Murray (Glasgow), S Murray, C Smith, S Taylor (all Edinburgh), J White (Sale, capt).Reuse content