England facing loosehead prop headache for Six Nations

Joe Marler (left) - England facing loosehead prop headache for Six Nations
Joe Marler (left) suffered an arm injury during Harlequins' Premiership victory over Gloucester - Getty Images /Bob Bradford

Steve Borthwick, the England head coach, is facing a front-row headache ahead of the Six Nations, with the three looseheads selected for last year’s World Cup either ruled out or in a fitness race for the start of the championship.

Joe Marler, England’s starting loosehead in the semi-final loss to South Africa, departed Harlequins’ victory over Gloucester at Twickenham with an arm injury. Ellis Genge injured his hamstring training with Bristol at the start of December while Bevan Rodd, the Sale prop, has been ruled out of the entire Six Nations, which begins on February 2, with a toe injury.

Mako Vunipola, who was not selected for the World Cup squad owing to an ongoing back problem, has been banned for four matches after receiving a red card for a dangerous tackle in Saracens’ victory over Newcastle last weekend. Vunipola’s return, if selected, would be England’s opener in Italy on Feb 3.

On Wednesday, Genge and Marler’s respective club coaches, Pat Lam and Billy Millard, issued updates on the rehabilitation of their players. Of Genge’s hamstring injury, Lam said the loosehead, a candidate to take on the England captaincy due to Owen Farrell’s absence, was “on track... hopefully he’ll make it in time for around the Six Nations”.

“The plan is for him to be back for the Italy game,” Lam added. “I understand that he’s tracking well, so you give it a few weeks. The most important thing is that they just do the work and every player is different; every injury is different. When he’s ready, he’s ready.”

Of Marler’s arm injury, Millard said that the veteran loosehead would almost definitely not be available for Harlequins’ trip to Newcastle this Friday. The director of rugby could not provide further updates, however, as Marler, alongside other Quins forwards Dino Lamb and Stephan Lewies, were still being assessed and scanned by the club’s medical team

“We had three big injuries in the first half [of the Gloucester victory] to three very influential and key decision-makers on the pitch,” Millard said.

“To be totally honest, they are still seeing specialists. I think some of them have turned out all right, but I am still not 100 per cent clear on the three. We are still waiting for total clarity.

“It’s [Marler’s] arm but, again, they are getting MRIs and there are specialists looking at it, and until I am 100 per cent clear, I wouldn’t want to speculate. God love him, he battled on for a long time, but we have got specialists looking at him as we speak.

“Fingers crossed, it is only a short-term one. Joe is Joe. He is big for us in so many ways. Hopefully, it is not a long one for him.

“I doubt very much he will be available for selection [this Friday].

What are Borthwick’s options?

The injuries leave Borthwick with a growing conundrum at loosehead ahead of England’s first match in Rome at the start of next month – and with captaincy, too.

If Genge had been in the England head coach’s thoughts –  the two, after all, led Leicester to their first Premiership title in nearly 10 years in 2022 – to lead the national side then the Bristol loosehead now looks more of a gamble. Genge, even if he is fit for the challenge of the Azzurri on Feb 3, will have played little to no rugby before the championship.

Moreover, would Borthwick select a captain who might not even be able to take a full part in training when the squad is announced on Jan 18?

In terms of the No 1 shirt, should one of Marler or Genge – or, more alarmingly, both – fail to make that match against Italy on Feb 3, Borthwick’s experienced options are slim. An under-cooked Vunipola, owing to suspension, would be the outstanding candidate.

Val Rapava-Ruskin, the fourth-choice loosehead in the build-up to the World Cup, is not expected back for Gloucester until the back end of this season. Beno Obano, just like last season, has put in some commanding displays for Bath but he was below Rapava-Ruskin, Vunipola and the three selected in the World Cup pecking order.

Borthwick might, therefore, be forced into rolling the dice and selecting a youngster. Thankfully, there are some options who have shown potential in the Premiership this season; even if they have not proven themselves at the top level. Phil Brantingham, 22, at Newcastle is an excellent prospect, lively in the loose while also a destructive scrummager – and highly rated in the upper echelons of English rugby.

Tarek Haffar, the same age as Brantingham, is another with plenty of potential, who featured during Northampton’s comeback over Sale last weekend. Fin Baxter has proven himself as an able deputy for Marler for Harlequins but whether he is able to do so at Test level remains to be seen. In Rodd’s stead at Sale, Ross Harrison is also playing the rugby of his life.

Whatever the outcome, an intriguing month awaits for England’s front-row stable.

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