Stuart Lancaster has already taken the decision he would rather have avoided like the plague: David Wilson, the tight-head prop from Bath who has spent a grand total of 47 minutes on the field since injuring his calf muscle in a two-bit training game before Christmas, will be asked to anchor the England scrum against Ireland when Six Nations business resumes at Twickenham on Saturday.
The red-rose coach admitted that in a perfect world, Wilson would have started on the bench. Unfortunately for Lancaster, that world ended the moment Dan Cole broke down during a strength and conditioning session.
Lancaster's alternative was to give the Sale forward Henry Thomas – who will, by coincidence, join Bath at the end of the season – a first start at Test level after three run-ons as a replacement. But his reluctance to play the youngster has been crystal clear from the outset of the tournament: against France in Paris at the start of the month, Cole put in a full shift of 80 minutes; against the Scots at Murrayfield last time out, the first-choice No 3 from Leicester was withdrawn only when England were out of sight at 20-0, with under five minutes left on the clock.
Pressed on whether Cole was the one man England could not afford to lose ahead of this meeting with Joe Schmidt's unbeaten visitors – a team certain to be motivated to the eyeballs with the great centre Brian O'Driscoll making his final Twickenham appearance – Lancaster tacitly admitted that this was the case. "It's the position where we have the least depth," he acknowledged, choosing his words carefully. "We're fortunate that Wilson has come back into the mix now. It's not ideal, obviously, that he should have played so little rugby, but he's been around the group for ages and he's a very experienced prop. We're 100 per cent confident about bringing him into the team. As for Henry, we'll keep developing him."
Cole, a Lions tourist in Australia last summer and a first-choice front-rower for England since 2010, could be off-limits for months. He felt a weakness in one arm while bench-pressing a substantial amount of weight during a gym session at St George's Park, the national football centre in Staffordshire, and immediately underwent a series of tests and scans. A bulging disc in his neck was quickly identified, together with some nerve damage, and he was told there and then that he would play no further part in this Six Nations. He is due to have another specialist consultation tomorrow, after which his prospects of an early return will be clearer. Privately, the England coaches are far from convinced that he will recover in time for the three-Test tour of New Zealand in June.
"You can't mess about with this kind of injury," Lancaster said, indicating that the problem was of the wear-and-tear variety. "From a player welfare point of view, it was a no-brainer to rule him out of the remainder of the tournament: he needs rest, and he needs to give nature a chance to take its course. Will he be back towards the end of the season, in time for the Premiership play-offs and the tour? We'll have to wait for the second opinion. The main thing is for him to do everything right in terms of recovery."
One of Cole's fellow Lions in Australia, the Ulster hooker Rory Best, did not attempt to deny that the Leicester player's withdrawal was a "massive blow" for England. Even so, he predicted that the Irish forwards would face their most severe examination to date when the close-quarter pleasantries begin late on Saturday afternoon.
"The scrum will be a huge part of the contest," said the man from County Armagh, "and England will want to make a point of destroying our maul. I played under Graham Rowntree [the red-rose forwards coach] on the Lions tour and it's all about physical dominance with him. Dominate up front, you dominate the game. He'll be drumming that into his pack."
Wales, who must beat France in Cardiff on Friday night to retain any hope of securing an unprecedented third successive title, are likely to play George North at outside centre in a reshaped back division. Specialist midfielders Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams and Ashley Beck will not be fit for the game – news that led Robin McBryde, one of the champions' assistant coaches, to admit that options were now "a bit thin".
Up front, the Ospreys breakaway Justin Tipuric is favourite to play on the open-side flank, with Sam Warburton, the captain, shifting to short-side in place of Dan Lydiate. The lock Luke Charteris is expected to return to the engine room for Andrew Coombes.