The odds on Mike Brown featuring in England's key Six Nations game against Ireland on Sunday are lengthening after the fullback suffered a setback in his recovery from concussion.
He had hoped to be back in action this week but cannot now resume full training until at least Friday, the same day England fly to Dublin.
Given the circumstances of Brown's injury, which saw him knocked out and carried off during the game against Italy at Twickenham last Saturday week, the management cannot be seen to be taking the remotest chance and Saracens' Alex Goode looks likely to start against Ireland, even if Brown remains symptom-free.
The 29-year-old Harlequin experienced a slight reaction during a stint on an exercise bike last Friday, which required him to restart his five-day graduated return to play programme on Monday after a weekend of rest.
England head coach Stuart Lancaster will not be announcing his starting lineup until Friday but could do without any eve-of-game disruption to his plans. "I've got to be 100 per cent certain that he's right," Lancaster said. "It's very early for me to pencil him in for a game at the moment."
It could be that England ultimately follow the example of Wales, who declined to pick George North for their game against Scotland despite the fact the winger had passed all the required tests following the knocks to the head he suffered during his side's opening game with England.
Concussion awareness is improving at all levels of the sport and there is little point taking unnecessary selection risks.
Lancaster has already summoned Worcester's Chris Pennell as extra cover and says the old-school days of "I'll be alright, Doc" are ancient history.
“I would need to get the detail of the actual cognitive tests as opposed to, ‘I’ve been on the bike and I feel fine’,” the head coach said. “There are a series of cognitive tests, both written and verbal, that they have to do to prove they’re fit to go on to the next stage.
“It will be a judgment call based on a medical call. A lot will depend on how the next 24 hours go but the decision will have to be made within the next two days because the team need to prepare with all the pieces in place.
“The reality is he won’t have trained for 13 days from the game against Italy to – potentially – this Friday. As a coach going into Tuesday and Wednesday you want to be reasonably certain what the team is going to be. I’m not being cautious, we’re just following the protocols to the letter. His welfare is our primary concern and I’m simply guided by what the doctor tells me.”
Anyone who saw Goode’s recent display for Saracens against Bath will know England possess a more than capable replacement.
"We absolutely trust Alex," said Lancaster, who has also summoned Rob Webber to training as temporary cover while Tom Youngs recovers from Leicester's gruelling win at London Irish on Sunday. "He's lost out in the short term because Mike has played exceptionally well but Alex has played consistently well for England. He's been unlucky in the sense the stand-out player in the Six Nations last year was Mike Brown, who plays in his position. He's certainly confident and he feels he's ready, should his opportunity come."
also pushing extremely hard for inclusion on the wing, Lancaster believes his team will be well prepared – “We know it is going to come again” – for the aerial challenge Ireland like to pose. Memories of past beatings in Dublin are still fresh enough, however, to ensure a sense of complacency will not be joining the visitors on the short trip across the Irish Sea.
"We've all been involved in games where Ireland have raised their game and played unbelievably well," Lancaster said. "This is a team who have won nine matches on the bounce. They are obviously a very good side, very well coached with a lot of good players who will be hugely motivated by England coming to Dublin." Guardian Service