Billy Twelvetrees, the key figure in England's attacking strategy, is still struggling for fitness five days before the start of the three-test series against the All Blacks and is now extremely doubtful to play in Auckland this weekend, although coach Stuart Lancaster has yet to rule him out.
"The clock is ticking," Lancaster said yesterday, confirming the Gloucester midfielder had not yet played a full part in training and shows no immediate sign of doing so.
This was bad news for the tourists, already shorn of two international midfielders in Luther Burrell and Brad Barritt, both of whom participated in the exhausting Premiership final at Twickenham last Saturday and were on the field for the entire 100 minutes.
Along with a significant number of fellow Northampton and Saracens players, they were scheduled to fly into Auckland today. However, they will be in no condition to perform at Eden Park and must wait until the second test in Dunedin on June 14 to resume their England careers.
Twelvetrees, pretty much the only test-class second five-eighths armed with the full range of passing and kicking skills, suffered an ankle injury during the Gloucester-London Irish league game early last month and was widely assumed to be off-limits to Lancaster as he pieced together his squad for a tough tour. This was made doubly difficult by the proximity of the Premiership showpiece to the Eden Park match. His progress was quicker than initially anticipated, but unless things change dramatically, he will run out of time.
The injury bulletin from the Saints-Saracens game came as some relief to the coaching staff. First-five Owen Farrell and No8 Billy Vunipola failed to go the distance, but are thought to be in one piece. So too is hooker Dylan Hartley, who played the best part of 40 minutes at Twickenham and will be in contention for Dunedin.
Bath hooker Rob Webber is favourite to face the All Blacks at Eden Park.