It may be time for Danny Cipriani to come in from the cold
It is the worst scenario England have faced since the 'Tour of Hell' in 1998
Danny Cipriani will find out on Thursday whether his four-year exile from England colours is about to end with an appearance in the end-of-season fixture against the Barbarians and a possible tour to New Zealand.
The Sale Sharks fly-half last wore the Red Rose for England's second team, the Saxons, in a win over Italy A in Treviso in February 2010, having been demoted from the senior ranks the previous year by then manager Martin Johnson.
Stuart Lancaster was head coach of that Saxons team and is now in charge of picking a senior England squad of 40 players to play three Tests against the world-champion All Blacks in June plus a midweek match against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
There are at least 10 players unavailable, mainly due to injury, leaving Lancaster juggling upwards of 60 names to cover five fixtures including the date with the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday 1 June, which will be contested by a quasi-Saxons team.
The high-profile New Zealand tour is complicated by the fixture clash that prevents any players involved in the Aviva Premiership final on 31 May from participating in the following Saturday's First Test in Auckland.
Lancaster will get the ball rolling next Thursday when he names around 15 players for a two-day skills-and-conditioning camp in London starting on Monday 19 May.
Cipriani, whose career began with Wasps before an 18-month stint with Melbourne Rebels, is in line to be among them alongside his Sale team-mate Henry Thomas and others from clubs whose seasons are over, including Matt Kvesic, Ben Morgan, Freddie Burns, Henry Trinder, Jonny May, Marland Yarde, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom Johnson, Henry Slade, Sam Hill and Kieran Brookes.
It is the most convoluted scenario England have been lumbered with since the 1998 "Tour of Hell" to the southern hemisphere, when Clive Woodward's squad was depleted by star players pulling out injured or exhausted from a long season.
Lancaster cannot begin to settle on his First-Test combination until after next weekend's Premiership semi-finals, and his tour squad will fly to New Zealand in two batches: one before and one after the final.
Injuries and rehabilitation have ruled out Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Croft, Christian Wade, George Kruis, David Paice, Jack Nowell and Joel Tomkins, with Gloucester fly-half/centre Billy Twelvetrees and Bath hooker Rob Webber also major doubts, while Leicester hooker Tom Youngs has been given time off to be with his wife, who is ill.
Lancaster is set to pick a worryingly untried front row at Auckland's Eden Park, where the All Blacks are unbeaten since 1994. The back-up hookers to Dylan Hartley on tour could be Dave Ward, Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie – all uncapped. If Northampton reach the Premiership final, it would rule Hartley out of the daunting Auckland match.
The situation at tighthead prop is almost as parlous, with Newcastle's uncapped Brookes and Scott Wilson plus Harlequins' Will Collier vying to tour in support of Thomas and Bath's David Wilson.
Lancaster intends to take four players each in the scrum-half, tighthead, loosehead, hooker positions, plus seven back- rowers and five locks.
This will be seen as the ultimate test of the national team's strength in depth. "I don't lie awake at night worrying about the worst-case scenario," Lancaster said last week. "What makes a team successful is belief and whatever game we've played in we have had belief."
Cipriani, 26, has played with increasing confidence and less of the temperamental scowl of old in his second season with Sale as they jumped from 10th in last year's Premiership to sixth this time, qualifying for the European Champions Cup.
Owen Farrell and George Ford are the leading England fly-halves, ahead of Twelvetrees, Goode, Burns and Steve Myler, so Cipriani is long odds to add to his seven caps. But he has not been this close since Johnson dropped him in 2009-10.
Possible England tour squad of 40
Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Matt Mullan, Nathan Catt/Alex Waller; Dylan Hartley, Dave Ward, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George; David Wilson, Henry Thomas, Will Collier, Kieran Brookes; Dave Attwood, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling, Ed Slater; Chris Robshaw, Matt Kvesic, Tom Wood, James Haskell, Tom Johnson, Billy Vunipola, Ben Morgan.
Chris Ashton, Mike Brown, Ben Foden, Alex Goode, Marland Yarde; Brad Barritt, Jonathan Joseph/Kyle Eastmond, Anthony Allen, Luther Burrell; Owen Farrell, George Ford, Steve Myler/Freddie Burns/Danny Cipriani; Danny Care, Lee Dickson, Ben Youngs, Richard Wigglesworth.
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