England's chances of turning the rugby world upside down for the second time in a year by beating the All Blacks at Twickenham on Saturday suffered a bitter blow when the loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero dropped out with knee trouble.
The Northampton player, one of the most accomplished scrummagers in the game, joins a second British and Irish Lions Test front-rower, Mako Vunipola, on the casualty list and with the third-string No 1 Joe Marler suffering from concussion, the national team was teetering on the edge of an injury crisis.
Marler may yet face the Kiwis: the Harlequins player is working his way through the standard medical protocols with a view to training fully on Thursday. But if there is any slippage in his recovery, England's staff will withdraw him from selection. That would leave the inexperienced Matt Mullan as the only fit loose-head specialist in the party.
As things stand, Mullan is assured of a place on the bench at the very least, almost four years after winning his one and only full cap in a Six Nations match against Italy. He has performed at a high level since moving from Worcester to Wasps at the end of last season and Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, expressed full confidence in him. Asked if he would be happy to see Mullan start this "vengeance match" against the world champions, who went down to a record defeat at Twickenham last year, he replied: "Absolutely. That's why he's here."
For all that, Corbisiero's latest orthopaedic breakdown is a serious setback. The 25-year-old has a long history of knee problems and his training regime is restricted as a result, but he remains an outstanding front-row forward, as he proved when he scrummaged the British and Irish Lions to victory over Australia in Sydney last July.
There was more bad news for the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, when Marland Yarde, the promising London Irish wing, dropped out of contention for a return to the starting line-up. His hip injury, allied to Christian Wade's continuing hamstring issues, means the much-criticised Chris Ashton and Ben Foden will keep their places in the back division.
As if this were not enough, Lancaster learnt that the Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, who made such a dynamic contribution to beating the All Blacks last December, may miss the entire 2014 Six Nations tournament. Tuilagi tore a pectoral muscle and was hoping the injury would heal without surgery, thereby allowing him to resume before Christmas. It emerged that he went under the knife earlier this week and was now looking at another three months of enforced inactivity.
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