Ollie Lawrence likely to miss Six Nations as England hit by midfield crisis

Ollie Lawrence training with England
The loss of Ollie Lawrence (left) will be acutely felt by Steve Borthwick - Peter Cziborra/Action Images

Centre Ollie Lawrence is set to be ruled out of a significant portion of the Guinness Six Nations Championship, plunging England into a familiar midfield crisis.

Telegraph Sport understands that Lawrence suffered a hip injury in the 31-19 Champions Cup defeat away to Toulouse on Sunday. An initial prognosis was that the lay-off could be up to eight weeks but Bath are optimistic that the 24-year-old may return sooner as he undergoes further tests. England’s Six Nations campaign begins away to Italy on Feb 3 before they host Wales at Twickenham on Feb 10. Following a week’s break, they face a Calcutta Cup clash against Scotland on Feb 24 before their campaign concludes at home to Ireland on March 9 and away to France in Lyon on March 16.

To compound England head coach Steve Borthwick’s woes, Harlequins centre Oscar Beard also withdrew from the training squad along with Sale Sharks hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie.

The trio have been replaced by the Bath back pair of Max Ojomoh and Will Muir, as well as Newcastle hooker Jamie Blamire who will head out to England’s warm-weather training camp in Girona, Spain.

Bath inside centre Max Ojomoh passes the ball
Bath inside centre Max Ojomoh (left) has been called up by England - Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images

The loss of Lawrence will be acutely felt by Borthwick. The Bath centre has been in excellent form this season and was favourite to start at inside centre, partnering Henry Slade. However, his withdrawal may force Borthwick to hand a debut at inside centre to Ojomoh or Northampton’s Fraser Dingwall for England’s trip to Rome.

The uncapped pair are the only players in the 36-man squad to have regularly played at inside centre, although Exeter’s Slade has filled in there previously. Regardless, it means that Borthwick faces yet another overhaul of his midfield, which has been a consistent problem area for England for the past 20 years.

His starting midfield from the World Cup knockout games of Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Marchant are all unavailable for the start of the Six Nations campaign. Sale hope that Tuilagi might recover from a groin injury during the tournament.

The uncapped Beard suffered a concussion in Harlequins’ victory over Ulster while Cowan-Dickie picked up a knock against La Rochelle on Sunday.

On Monday, Borthwick was still gathering fitness updates at the Six Nations launch in Dublin and sounded his frustration at the flow of information from the Premiership clubs.

“We’re still gathering all this information now,” Borthwick said. “One of the challenges for the last Six Nations was the reporting systems between club and country aren’t what they should be and aren’t what they’re going to be next year, but nothing has changed from last year to this year.

“Next year when we have enhanced EPS [Elite Player Squad contracts], we will be in a better situation. Right now we’re dealing with information that we haven’t been aware of as quickly as we can, which is disappointing but we’ll have to keep doing as well as we possibly can.

“I don’t want to overstate that. But we are in the same situation where last night we were finding things out for the first time. Which is not what it should be. Going forward we’ll have a new agreement in place and we aim to have all the information of the players’ training volumes and loads, the same systems they have with medical information, all of these things.

“It should be much more aligned. I think what has happened here is that everybody has inherited a system that hasn’t had full alignment. What we aim to do from next year onwards is that we have full alignment so that the club game can thrive, and the national team can thrive.”

England’s overworked players a growing concern

Borthwick admits he will struggle to bridge the fitness gap heading into the Six Nations as Telegraph Sport can reveal a vast discrepancy in playing time versus other countries.

Borthwick bemoaned England’s conditioning levels in his first campaign in charge a year ago - a view that was subsequently endorsed by a Rugby Football Union review in a third successive two-win tournament.

England touched down in Girona on Tuesday for a warm-weather training camp but will only have five full training sessions before their opening match against Italy in Rome on Feb. 3, where Borthwick is targeting an explosive start.

That will be made harder by the volume of matches that England’s players have faced since the World Cup quarter-finals. Statistics released by Opta show England’s 36-man squad have played an average of 712 minutes per player. The next highest is France’s 589 minutes per player. Compared to the centrally managed Irish squad, England’s team have played three more matches per man.

“If you look at the number of minutes the English players play it is quite clear that’s not changed,” Borthwick said. “If you look at since the quarter-final weekend how much the English players have played versus others, the French players have played a lot. The number one thing I’ll say is that the players are match-hardened. So that’s a great benefit. Generally I will try to look at the positive side and I have a group of players that are match-hardened. They are ready to go.”

Looking at individual minutes played since the quarter-finals, English players make up seven of the top 10 players, led by Exeter centre Henry Slade with 1109 minutes ahead of Harlequins No 8 Alex Dombrandt who has the most key actions (628) for tackles made, carries and rucks hit. Both have played in every one of their club’s 14 matches without a break. Telegraph Sport has learnt of several high profile players who are at “breaking point” with no breaks in the new season structure before the Premiership goes into hiatus for seven weeks following this weekend’s round of matches.

Even second row Maro Itoje, who was briefly rested by Saracens after the World Cup, has played in 12 matches and is third for key actions (510) meaning that Borthwick will have to taper his training programme in Girona. “Look at someone like Maro, who I think is playing really well, he has played a lot of games and he doesn’t often play less than 80 minutes each time he goes on the pitch,” Borthwick said. “If you compare that with someone in Ireland that is different and that is okay.

“I am clear on this because I need to know where the players are at and how hard I can push. As a coach I am demanding because I want the team to be the best and we push but I need to be aware of where my players are coming from and if my players are playing 80 minutes every week, and every week, and every week that becomes a different training camp to what we are going into.”

Data fed to Borthwick suggests there has been an increase in the volume of running by Premiership players, but as he points out that is only one element of the fitness he needs from his squad in the Six Nations. “What I am also aware of is that the Six Nations is a real contest, breakdown contest game,” Borthwick said. “So what you need to do is ensure that we’ve got that running right and the level of repeatability around the contact area. So I think there’s definitely a move forward.”

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