Eddie Jones faces a worst-case scenario that a third of his preferred England side will be unavailable for the Six Nations opener against Scotland.

The head coach’s grand vision for the tournament is in danger of turning to dust.

Jones’ squad continue to be besieged by setbacks. While England want to prove they can be adaptable, they also want to be as near full-strength as possible for their first championship fixture after finishing fifth last year.

Eddie Jones could be without a third of his first-choice England side against Scotland

Eddie Jones could be without a third of his first-choice England side against Scotland

What is clear now is that Owen Farrell — who was supposed to be captain — and Jonny May won’t take any part in the Six Nations. Both face a significant spell out of action, recovering from surgery on ankle and knee respectively.

There are also doubts about other leading men. Courtney Lawes should be the understudy skipper, as he was in the autumn, but the Northampton forward is going through return-to-play protocols after concussion and may not be cleared to play at Murrayfield a week on Saturday.

Two other forwards may be missing. Joe Marler is isolating with Covid and although he is expected to resume training by Tuesday, the matchday line-up would usually have taken shape by then before the first game of a campaign.

Jones is due to name his team next Thursday and he won’t want to include too many players who have not prepared properly. Jonny Hill is recovering from a foot injury and won’t have played for four weeks even if he is passed fit.

So Jones has plenty to ponder. Here is the state of play… 

The Red Rose head coach confirmed on Wednesday that Owen Farrell will miss the Six Nations

The Red Rose head coach confirmed on Wednesday that Owen Farrell will miss the Six Nations

FRONT ROW  

Leicester captain Ellis Genge will wear the No 1 shirt if Marler is not cleared for action at loosehead prop, although the management hope the veteran Harlequin will be ready. 

With Kyle Sinckler a shoo-in at tighthead, Jones must choose between Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker. George was involved in the autumn, but Cowan-Dickie has been first-choice when both have been fit lately.

SECOND ROW  

Once again, it will be Maro Itoje plus one. If Hill is not ready to face the Scots, Lawes may be shifted back to lock if he has overcome his head knock. 

The alternative would be to pick either Bath captain Charlie Ewels or recalled Saracen Nick Isiekwe, who can also operate at blindside flanker. In the circumstances, going with Lawes makes sense and he will be given every chance to play.

BACK ROW  

Tom Curry is the only certainty, due to the doubt about Lawes and with Sam Underhill once again sidelined by a concussion setback, having been omitted from the squad due to lack of game-time. It therefore seems far less likely Jones will persist with deploying Curry at No 8.

The head coach may opt for a scavenging double act, with Curry and Lewis Ludlam — who has led Northampton with distinction this season — on the flanks, to combat Scotland’s ruck prowess. It is destined to be a straight choice between Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds at No 8.

Dombrandt could have the slight edge due to his greater physical stature and his connection with Quins team-mate Marcus Smith.

Jonny May has also been ruled out of the opener, and is likely to miss the entire tournament

Jonny May has also been ruled out of the opener, and is likely to miss the entire tournament

HALF BACKS  

Ben Youngs at scrum-half is one of the more predictable selections, despite the emergence of Sale’s Raffi Quirke as a turbo-charged young pretender. 

There will be much discussion about the fly-half choice but in truth it is a simple one. Marcus Smith is the incumbent and Jones wants him to run the show into the future.

George Ford is in the squad again and that is due reward for supreme club form. 

But it is a stretch to imagine him usurping the boy wonder from Harlequins. So Ford is a bench candidate — a mentor and an in-form rival who can keep the prodigy on his toes.

MIDFIELD  

Henry Slade will start — somewhere. The Exeter centre functioned well alongside Joe Marchant in an emergency reshuffle early in the November win against world champions South Africa, so that is the most likely scenario this time. Mark Atkinson of Gloucester is also in the mix as a strong runner and canny distributor at 12.

BACK THREE  

Leicester rookie Freddie Steward appears destined to be England’s full back for years to come. He will wear 15 against Scotland, but, with May out, the wing places are up for grabs.

Jack Nowell is back and Jones is a big fan of his work-rate and ability to bounce out of tackles.

It is possible to envisage Nowell on one wing and Max Malins on the other — although the recalled Elliot Daly offers the benefit of a long-range, left-footed kicking outlet.

Of course, there is still time for the current state of chaos to ease. Jones will hope that it does. Scotland are bound to pose a serious threat in front of a partisan home crowd and will be buoyed by the memories of their historic victory at Twickenham last year.

Gregor Townsend’s pack eclipsed their vaunted English rivals that day and will believe they can gain an advantage up front again — especially with the breakdown prowess of their outstanding flankers, Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson.

If they command sufficient possession, they have ample firepower with several back-line Lions — Ali Price and Finn Russell, Chris Harris, Duhan van der Merwe and captain Stuart Hogg — along with the brilliant Bath rookie Cameron Redpath.

Jones will likely stick with Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith and allow him to pull the strings

Jones will likely stick with Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith and allow him to pull the strings

The visitors will want to head north with the pedigree and nous to handle a dangerous occasion.

Ideally, they need Lawes to be on duty — wearing the armband again — and they also need Marler there for set-piece clout and more.

If those two don’t pull through in time to be selected, England could be extremely vulnerable. 



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