Both fly-half and captain Owen Farrell and powerhouse No 8 Billy Vunipola will miss England’s biggest match in four years, suspended after high tackles.
New head coach Steve Borthwick was handed a hospital pass challenge of turning England into world beaters in seven months.
Boil that down to two-and-a-half weeks, and Borthwick could be forgiven for dialling France’s emergency number.
The Rugby World Cup opener against Argentina in Marseille on Saturday, September 9 loomed large enough when Borthwick had nine matches to prepare on taking the England job in December.
Now all England have left is Saturday’s final warm-up clash with Fiji at Twickenham, and the last few days of their behind-closed-doors training graft.
Farrell’s absence will be a bitter blow to an England side crying out for direction and impetus.
George Ford and Marcus Smith must hold the fort against the Pumas, and then also Japan too, with the 107-cap skipper missing the first two World Cup clashes.
Wily Argentina coach Michael Cheika will be rubbing his hands with glee at Farrell’s absence.
The Pumas will throw their endless supply of bullish ball-carriers straight down the fly-half channel, and Ford and Smith will have to deliver the defensive performances of their careers.
The odds are stacking against Borthwick’s men, from personnel problems to tactical deficiencies.
Attack coach Richard Wigglesworth has insisted England will tailor their game to the individuals on the field rather than stick to one rigid philosophy.
By that rationale, Ford and Smith will run the England backline markedly differently from each other – and also from Farrell, too.
The biggest problem is that England’s attack is simply in no sort of order. Borthwick admitted England’s front-foot game was “clunky” in the wake of Saturday’s 29-10 loss to Ireland in Dublin.
For England’s attack to clunk however, all the moving parts would need to be in contact.
As it stands, England have offered precious few clues as to their attacking intentions in France.
This is either a masterful strategy from Borthwick, or, more likely, the tribulations of a mid-level team struggling to find its identity.
Farrell will at least be on hand to help push the standard in training.
The Lions star overhauled and expanded Saracens’ attacking game en route to the Gallagher Premiership title in the season just completed.
How England need him to drag the Test team kicking and screaming into a higher octane approach now, too, even from a watching brief.
Vunipola’s absence creates a chasm every bit as damaging.
Borthwick has pinned great hopes on the Sydney-born back-rower, bringing him back from the cold after full Six Nations omission.
Ben Earl would appear the best fit to shift to No 8, with the Saracens flanker in bullish, aggressive form.
Borthwick was determined to build England’s World Cup game around Vunipola’s power, but against Argentina at least, must find other ways across the gainline.
England’s high-stakes legal gamble and rugby’s judiciary rabbit hole turned Farrell’s shoulder charge on Wales’ Taine Basham from a no-brainer suspension into a 10-day conundrum.
Farrell’s hit on Basham has jumped from fully illegal hit to yellow card-worthy and back to wholly unacceptable across a week-and-a-half of frustrations and recriminations.
England must take their share of the blame, for attempting to game the system only to be caught out.
High-profile barrister Richard Smith led the strategy of contesting the red card in the initial hearing.
Farrell’s red card was rescinded, but only for 48 hours. World Rugby appealed the result, sending the saga rumbling into another week and leaving England head coach Steve Borthwick “disappointed”.
A penny for Borthwick’s thoughts now that Farrell has ended up with not just a ban but an extra week’s disruption and plenty of unwanted scrutiny on his tackle technique.
England’s World Cup preparations are the most chaotic of any top nation, barring Australia’s Eddie Jones roadshow of course.
From the moment England sacked Jones in December, the Red Rose World Cup campaign was plunged into disarray
From the moment England sacked Jones in December, the Red Rose World Cup campaign was plunged into disarray.
England supremo Bill Sweeney would argue that head coach Jones’ ailing record and listing team rendered the regime already in strife, a proposal in which the RFU chief executive would be justified.
To parachute in a new head coach and expect them to build and road-test a cogent, game-breaking World Cup plan in less than 10 matches still however remains pure folly.
The only mitigation will be if the RFU opts to regard the World Cup as a shot to nothing, backing Borthwick and his expensively assembled staff to succeed in 2027.
Patience will not be forthcoming in this regard however, at a union where a semi-final will be an expectation.
Borthwick knows the drill. Time is running out to make sure his players do too, come that Argentina match in Marseille.