Eddie Jones is facing a front row crisis as he prepares to defend the Six Nations Grand Slam with Harlequins prop Joe Marler ruled out of the opening two rounds of the Championship with a broken leg.
Harlequins confirmed that Marler has broken the lower part of his left leg and will be expected to sit out “ four to five weeks” while undergoing rehabilitation at the club which means he misses the games with France (February 4) and Wales ( February 11) . However, he could be available for the week leading into the Twickenham clash with Italy on February 26.
While that is of some comfort for Jones, he heads into the Six Nations with major selection headaches to solve and players who will not be match fit.
Mako Vunipola will discover later this week if he must follow the lead of brother Billy and undergo knee surgery after failing to overcome the ligament problem with rehabilitation treatment and it now come down to a specialist’s verdict on a knee scan later this week.
Matt Mullan, the 30-year-old Wasps prop who has made just one start for England in his 13 caps, is now the most experienced loose head available to Jones. Backing up Mullan in the squad is uncapped Bath prop Nathan Catt who has played once for the Saxons in 2009 and it is likely that Jones will want to call up Leicester 21-year-old Ellis Genge, who played impressively against Wasps on Sunday.
Genge made his debut against Wales last season but can be easily dragged into head-to-head battles which will have been noted by the combative French.
Those who will be short of match action include captain Dylan Hartley who finishes his six week ban on January 23 while Saracens lock George Kruis is not expected to play any rugby before the France game due to his fractured cheekbone.
Both players will start for England against the French as they are key elements in the pack and Jones knows he has outstanding replacements to take over in Sarries hooker Jamie George and Northampton lock Courtney Lawes.
Billy Vunipola is already out of the Six Nations campaign joining Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi( knee) and former captain Chris Robshaw( shoulder) on the unavailable list for Jones, who went unbeaten in 2016, winning 13 matches in a row.
That record is now under severe pressure although the head coach is adamant he still has enough talent to handle an increasingly long injured list that includes his entire first choice back row. Haskell, who was knocked out 35 seconds after coming on against Leicester on Sunday after battling back from toe surgery, will miss Wasps European Champions Cup pool game with on Toulouse on Saturday due to head injury protocol treatment, but will be fit the following week.
While that would restore Jones’s first choice open side to the team to face France, he will have to deal with the loss of Vunipola, his ball carrying No8, and Robshaw, the player he calls the “glue” that holds the team together. Wasps No8 Nathan Hughes will continue in that role for England although he was less than impressive for the Premiership leaders in their win over Leicester, being taken off in the second half. Hughes is showing signs of feeling the increased work load and demands of constant high quality rugby and Jones will want to see more of an impact from the Fijian born player.
Robshaw’s replacement will be Sarries Maro Itoje who will be given game time in the No6 role by the club in the lead up to the Six Nations. Moving Itoje out of the second row will allow Jones to recall the fit-again Joe Launchbury to partner George Kruis at lock although Northampton’s Lawes is putting in the most consistent performances of his career and is pushing to keep his starting role for England.
as seen in the Evening Standard