Acid tests do not come more sulphurically charged than a meeting with the best side on the planet before a record home crowd in what is effectively World Cup year, so the fact that Andy Robinson and his remodelled coaching team have just two more days to squeeze the red-rose toothpaste back into the tube after the unholy mess of the last couple of years is a legitimate matter for concern. Forty-eight hours might be a long time in the union career of Andy Farrell, who at current rates is costing the Rugby Football Union a very tidy £5,555 per minute of competitive game time, but that is another story. As far as Robinson is concerned, we are talking something less than the blinking of an eye.
Next week's third and final élite gathering at Loughborough University begins on Monday morning and concludes on Tuesday afternoon, after which the players will go their separate ways until the evening of 29 October, less than a week before New Zealand come knock, knock, knockin' on the door of the new Twickenham. Who would be a head coach, rather than a chief executive? Francis Baron, who performs the latter role at the RFU, is confident the reconstructed South Stand will be fit for purpose the moment Richie McCaw and his fellow silver- ferners arrive in town, but has the luxury of relocating a few ticket-holders if, as is possible, the builders fail to complete a small portion of the upper tier. Robinson has no such luxury in respect of his team. They will either be 100 per cent ready or 100 per cent smashed.
It has been a difficult fortnight or so for the England coaches, to say the very least. Robinson's characteristically bullish plan to reintroduce fitness testing for the international squad fell flat when more than half those summoned were too orthopaedically compromised to participate. The first three-day session at Loughborough was worse in terms of casualties, with more than 30 players complaining of the usual range of injuries, plus a few new ones - damaged wrists in two cases, damaged testicles in another. This week's get-together had less of the field hospital about it, but the level of absenteeism was still strikingly high.
This would have been a serious problem had the England team been as settled as Will Carling's side of the early 1990s, or the one Martin Johnson led to World Cup glory three years ago. But there was nothing settled about this lot, even before the likes of Matt Stevens, Jonny Wilkinson, Steve Thompson and Steve Borthwick had to be ruled out of contention for the forthcoming autumn internationals. The list of stone-cold certainties was so brief, it could have passed for a David Cameron policy document. Mark Cueto, Charlie Hodgson, Danny Grewcock, Lewis Moody ... er, that was it. So it remains. The number of positions up for grabs over the next three weeks of Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup activity is far greater than the coaches could have imagined at the start of the campaign.
"We've managed to get some meaningful work done, particularly over the last three days, but I can't say it has been an ideal scenario," admitted Brian Ashton, the reappointed attack coach, after this week's session at Loughborough. "What we've achieved has been more on the organisational side. It's difficult to calculate in percentage terms, but it's true to say that without the injuries, we would have been further along the road that we are at the moment."
Considering that Ashton is attempting to change the mindset of the players, forwards as well as backs, with a view to them buying into a style and strategy that "takes them out of fixed ways of thinking" and "leaves the rigid systems behind" - that he wants the Test side to challenge opponents from every area of the field, just as the All Blacks do - time is of the essence. Pie in the sky? Not quite, for Ashton achieved something very like it out of nowhere in 2001, when his charges romped through the first four rounds of the Six Nations Championship scoring seven tries a game. But it is a considerable task, none the less. This forward pack is neither as dynamic nor as knowing as the one that operated under Johnson's leadership five years ago, although the electrifying James Forrester, of Gloucester, is upping the ante at No 8 and will surely play a part against New Zealand. As for the backs, we are talking about the difference between a unit granted the freedom of its own collective imagination and one incarcerated behind the bars of its uncertainty. Black and white, chalk and cheese.
Under more sympathetic circumstances than these, the unprecedented injury levels might have been a blessing in disguise. A number of inexperienced Premiership newcomers - the 20-year-old Gloucester backs Olly Morgan and Anthony Allen, the similarly youthful Bath seven-a-side specialist Nick Abendanon, the 22-year-old Wasps flanker Tom Rees, even Daniel Cipriani, the teenaged outside-half with no senior game time in the bank - all these bright sparks burnt sufficiently brightly on being called in to make up the numbers to suggest that English rugby is far from barren in terms of raw talent. But with the World Cup so close, and the four November international matches being as demanding as they are, it will take a brave group of selectors to cap any of them.
Morgan appears to be the closest at this juncture, for the very good reason that the full-back cupboard is worryingly Old Mother Hubbardish. Jason Robinson is not yet in a position to resume his Test career - he is still balancing his commitments to his family and his religion against the demands of a return to England colours, and anyway, the head coach has yet to be persuaded that the former captain is ready to make the step - while Iain Balshaw remains engaged in a Wilkinsonesque struggle for full fitness. He has too few of this season's miles on the clock to stack up against the All Blacks. Josh Lewsey, who can do a turn at No 15, is increasingly frustrated at being bounced around the back division like a rubber ball and would like to settle in one place. Most good judges consider that to be one of the wing positions. Tom Voyce? Out of favour. Mark van Gisbergen? Injured. It may seem odd after the way Sir Clive Woodward marginalised him following the 2001 Lions tour, but England would kill for a Matt Perry right now.
Of the other problem positions, all of which are to be found outside the pack, there is good news and bad news. The positives surround the scrum-half role, which the coaches have now decided is between another member of the cutting-edge Gloucester back division, Peter Richards, and the increasingly authoritative Shaun Perry, of Bristol.
The negatives concern that hoariest of red-rose chestnuts, inside centre. Wilkinson would have worn 12 against New Zealand, but for the now inevitable physical breakdown at the wrong moment. Olly Barkley, currently walking around like John Wayne as a result of a boot in the unmentionables during the Bath-Worcester match a fortnight ago, has yet to convince the people who matter, even though he has the kicking game to transform England's midfield fortunes. Mike Catt is under consideration, but at 35 he is hardly one for the future, and if there is even the slightest temptation to muscle-up in a position of fragility by reintroducing Mike Tindall's ballast, it should be resisted. Tindall is an outside centre. End of.
Word has it that Allen, the form inside centre in the Premiership, is not quite ready. He featured a good deal in England's training side at Loughborough and repeatedly caught the eye, just as he habitually does at Kingsholm with his intelligent running angles, his passing out of contact and his dependable defence. However, there is concern about his kicking, which is nowhere near as potent or cultured as Barkley's or Catt's, let alone Wilkinson's. An improvement in that area could easily propel him towards the World Cup squad when it is finalised 10 months from now, but as things stand, a start against Aaron Mauger or Luke McAlister is asking too much of him. Not for the first time, the 12 shirt represents a selectorial minefield.
"We've already sat down together as coaches in pre-selection and we'll have another meeting next week," Ashton said. "Obviously, the process will be on-going, especially with the injury situation as it is. The encouraging side of it is that we're working with some tremendously enthusiastic, receptive players - people who understand that what we're doing is never-ending. Once you think you've got it absolutely right, someone overtakes you."
Someone very like the All Blacks, presumably. Is it possible to overtake them back, so to speak? "They have a mastery of the basics, mixed with a quality of technique and a richness of imagination that allows them to do something that little bit different," Ashton replied. "But they play to a system, like everyone else. This system may not be apparent to everyone who happens to be watching them, but it's there. It's not in the nature of rugby that a coach can say to a team: 'Just get out there and enjoy yourselves.' It doesn't work like that."
Along with his fellow tacticians, Ashton will crack the code as sure as night follows day. What he and his colleagues cannot predict is how their own team, beset by broken bodies and subterraneanly low on confidence, will exploit the information. Meanwhile, the World Cup clock ticks on.Reuse content