England face make or break New Zealand tour
As a depleted England prepare for the first of three tests against New Zealand on Saturday many are questioning the wisdom of taking on the world champions in their own back yard 15 months before hosting the World Cup.
Coach Stuart Lancaster has made steady upward progress since taking over from Martin Johnson following the 2011 World Cup and has repeatedly stated that he wants England to be number one or two in the world when they host the next tournament.
He has refused to shy away from taking on the best of the southern hemisphere nations and knows that his relatively inexperienced squad need to test themselves against them and the the lessons learned may prove invaluable down the line.
The alternative view is that much of the good work could be undone if the ruthless All Blacks expose England's frailties and that Lancaster would then have little time to rebuild their confidence, and reputation.
England's cause is hardly helped by the fact that they wil play the first test with a virtual shadow team - giving Lancaster something of a ready-made excuse should things go wrong.
A group of players departed for New Zealand last week and a further 16 from Premiership finalists Northampton and Saracens, as well as Bath and Harlequins, left on Monday but are unavailable for the first test in Auckland on Saturday.
England's first three-test series in New Zealand had the potential to be a mouth-watering clash between the All Blacks, unbeaten in 2013, and an England side who have beaten the men in black only twice in New Zealand, but were victorious at Twickenham in 2012 and went close to a repeat last year.
Instead, the vagaries of the international calendar mean the visitors are shorn of many of their leading lights for the first test, including flanker Tom Wood, flyhalf Owen Farrell and centre Brad Barritt, making an already difficult assignment even tougher.
The timing of the tour, a week after Northampton's dramatic extra-time victory over Saracens in the Premiership final, has come in for much criticism.
The first Saturday in June had been set aside as an international rest day by the International Rugby Board, meaning the first test should have been played on June 14.
However, it was argued that instead of the first Saturday, it should be interpreted as meaning the first weekend, which meant Sunday June 1 was designated as the international rest day, despite coming less than 24 hours after the Premiership and French Top 14 finals.
That allowed the Eden Park test to be crammed in six days later, putting Lancaster in an impossible situation of having to consider up to 60 players for the tour, which also includes a midweek clash with the Canterbury Crusaders.
"It's not ideal when you come to play the world champions in their own backyard and don't have your best side available," Lancaster said.
"But it's a situation I inherited. The scheduling is done way in advance. We're not going to sit and moan about it."
Lancaster has worked hard to strip away the arrogance that once surrounded the England side, with their last two trips to New Zealand in 2008 and 2011 notorious for off-field drama.
They were just pipped by Ireland to this year's Six Nations championship, and the 44-year-old Lancaster has gone about creating a new culture within the side.
It is undeniable that a good effort in New Zealand can propel England to the World Cup in a positive frame of mind.
In 2003, a strong England side beat the All Blacks 15-13 in Wellington, despite having Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio yellow-carded, and with self-belief at an all-time high no England fan needs reminding what happened in Sydney five months later.
France have shown more than once what having a psychological hold on the All Blacks can do in a big-match situation, the 2007 World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff being a prime example, and England forwards coach Graham Rowntree acknowledged the impact victory over the All Blacks could have.
"That was a significant win for that group of players, who went on to win the World Cup," he said, referring to the 2003 win.
"It was a stepping stone and that's what this is for this group of young players.
"Pitching yourself against the best at Eden Park - it doesn't get any better or harder than that."
Unfortunately, the first test in particular may end up an exercise in damage limitation, with the home side unbeaten at the ground in almost 20 years, and it could set the tone for a series that may potentially do more harm than good to England's long-term prospects.
Lancaster is building a solid core of experienced internationals, but multiple thrashings 15 months out from the World Cup could set back their progress.
"It is less than ideal for England to start with an incomplete group of players to whom will be added almost another team and to whom the players from first test will have to give way," former England hooker and Daily Telegraph columnist Brian Moore wrote.
"Lancaster will have to revise both his strategy and formations almost in their entirety. Meanwhile, the All Blacks will have an effective test-paced warm-up with their full team and by the time the real battle commences will already be one up in the series.
"The one comfort for Lancaster is that when the absentees and others are aggregated he has a decent set of players. However, that has been apparent for some time and it is finalising the starting squad and XV that has always been his major task."