England finished the Six Nations with a striking air of optimism, largely generated by the holy trinity in their back-room team. Suddenly, they find themselves facing a five-match, three-Test tour of Springbok country – as demanding a summer schedule as they have ever undertaken – with what might be called a trinity of holes: no full-time attack coach, no specialist defence strategist and a gap in the line-out where Leicester's Tom Croft used to be.
Yesterday's positive news – confirmation that Mike Catt, a World Cup-winning centre in 2003, had signed a short-term contract that will see him assist the head coach Stuart Lancaster and the forwards coach Graham Rowntree on the trek through South Africa – was wholly overshadowed by grim tidings from New Zealand, where the inspirational All Black tactician Wayne Smith said he was rejecting a job offer from Twickenham for family reasons. Following Andy Farrell's decision to stick with Saracens rather than build on his good work during the Six Nations by committing himself to the red-rose cause, this latest knock-back was unwelcome in the extreme.
"Wayne told me he'd had a long, hard think about it before deciding he wanted to stay in Waikato," Lancaster said. "His parents, both of whom are quite elderly, live nearby and he has a son at university there, so I understand and respect his decision. Clearly it's disappointing, but when we spoke he was very complimentary about what we're doing with England: he saw a lot of comparisons with where the All Blacks were in 2004, just as they started moving towards the cultural shift that brought them the world title last year. My next move? The trip to South Africa is almost upon us, so I'll concentrate on getting that right. I won't be charging around looking for new coaches until we return."
Smith indicated last October that while he considered his All Black days to be over, he wanted to return to international coaching in time for the 2015 World Cup in England. He will probably do so: while the New Zealand hierarchy was alarmed at the prospect of him working with an England side who might threaten to reclaim the Webb Ellis Trophy, hence the talk of him being part of All Black rugby's "intellectual property", there would be far less of an objection to his working with, say, one of the Pacific Islands teams.
As if Smith's news was not dispiriting enough, Lancaster was also informed that both Croft, an automatic choice on England's blind-side flank, and the Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples would miss the tour through injury, thereby joining the Northampton forwards Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood on the absentee list. With another Franklin's Gardens player, Calum Clark, serving a lengthy suspension, the back-five resources are much more limited than they might have been.
As a result of Croft's withdrawal – the flanker injured his neck messing up what should have been a straightforward tackle during the Harlequins-Leicester league game 11 days ago – James Haskell will make an earlier than anticipated return to Test duty. Haskell is playing Super 15 rugby in New Zealand with the Highlanders and as he struck his current deal after the Rugby Football Union announced that those opting to move offshore would be picked for England only under exceptional circumstances, he was not expected to feature this summer. Apparently, a sudden shortage of international-class back-rowers qualifies as an exceptional circumstance. So much for principles.
Even though Haskell has just picked up a three-week ban for punching, he is certain to be included in a 42-man party due to be announced a week tomorrow. It may even be that Steffon Armitage, whose outstanding back-row form for Toulon is at the heart of the French club's continuing challenge for the Top 14 and Amlin Challenge Cup titles, will be picked alongside him.
If the apparent softening of the RFU's position on overseas-based players will create some selectorial elbow room in the loose forward department, the coaching deficit promises to be far more serious. Lancaster was at pains to point out that Catt now had a "big opportunity" to make his pitch for a permanent position – the 40-year-old from Port Elizabeth will leave London Irish following this weekend's concluding Premiership match with Gloucester – but he is still in the foothills of his back-room career and has several Everests to climb before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Smith.
Another New Zealander, the former Test wing John Kirwan, is a more obvious candidate for the long-term role. Lancaster himself indicated that a southern hemisphere voice might be music to his ears. "I think bringing someone in from outside to challenge us and broaden our thinking might be good," he said.
This time last month, Farrell was patently the "right decision". Then it was Smith. When push came to shove, both men made their excuses and left Lancaster swinging in the wind. "I'm not taking it personally," the coach said, with a laugh. Worryingly for England supporters who drank in the Six Nations successes like mother's milk following the poison of the World Cup campaign, it sounded very much like laughter in the darkness.