England expects in European Challenge Cup rugby final
England coach Stuart Lancaster at his side's Six Nations international rugby union match against Ireland at Twickenham on February 22, 2014 - by Glyn Kirk
Lancaster already knows he will have to do without players from English Premiership finalists Saracens and Northampton for the first of a three-Test series against world champions New Zealand in Auckland on June 7 because the Twickenham showpiece on May 31 won't allow them sufficient time to recover for the clash with the All Blacks.
But now it has emerged he could also be without Bath fly-half George Ford, deputy in the England set-up to Saracens' Owen Farrell, because of shoulder surgery.
Ford, the son of Bath coach Mike Ford -- himself a former England defence guru -- is due to play for the west country club against Northampton in Friday's match at Cardiff Arms Park, although reports have suggested he will have an operation shortly afterwards.
Ford, however, gave no indication of fitness concerns when he said Wednesday: "I'm probably the fittest I've ever felt.
"I'm fit and ready to go. I feel really good at the minute. I've had 25-26 games under my belt this season and I'm probably the fittest I've ever felt.
"All the boys are fit and ready to go," added Ford, whose potential absence from England duty could create a path back into the Test side for Danny Cipriani.
While Bath, who are set to have former Wales star Gavin Henson in their back division, can go all out for silverware on Friday knowing it's their last game of the season, for Northampton the situation is more complicated.
Do they rest first-choice players ahead of next weekend's Premiership final with Saracens or, because it's better to end the season with one trophy rather than none at all, do they put the senior side out to secure the Challenge Cup, European rugby's second-string prize, first?
Saints will definitely be without prop Silesi Ma'afu, who was handed a one-week ban for punching Leicester hooker Tom Youngs in last Thursday's Premiership semi-final.
And they could be missing England hooker Dylan Hartley as well as the New Zealand-born forward struggles to overcome a shoulder injury that has been a problem for him since March.
"Hopefully Dylan will be back, we're not too sure, he's improving by the day, but he's got to be fit to play," said Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder.
"The physios are constantly doing tests on him, comparing it to the other arm, to see where that is.
"It's got to reach a certain level before they're happy for him to take contact.
"He still hasn't taken contact yet."