Jones counts cost as Vunipola and Haskell face Six Nations woe
Billy Vunipola is set to miss the majority of the Six Nations and possibly the entire championship after suffering a fractured forearm in just his second match back from a four-month absence, extending the Saracens No 8's horrendous run of injuries over the last year and deepening England's back-row crisis.
The 24-year-old did not appear for the second half of Saturday's 15-15 draw against Ospreys that all but ended the reigning European Champions Cup holders' title defence - barring a string of extraordinary circumstances next weekend - after striking his wrist on the head of Ospreys No 8 Rob McCusker.
Having undergone an X-ray yesterday, Saracens confirmed that Vunipola had suffered the broken arm, which represents his fourth major injury in 14 months and could result in a fourth surgery depending on the outcome of a specialist appointment later this week once the swelling has gone down.
It not only leaves Saracens without one of their best players again this season - having only deployed Vunipola four times this season in which two of those ended in long-term injury - but also robs England of their starting No 8 just three weeks before the Six Nations begins.
Eddie Jones is due to name his squad for the championship on Thursday, but faces a big selection headache in the days leading up to the announcement.
To make matters worse, Vunipola's long-term deputy, Nathan Hughes, will miss the start of the tournament at least with a medial knee ligament injury, and the Wasps No 8 is no certainty to return in time for the final two matches of the championship in March against France and Ireland.
Another option in Hughes' club teammate, James Haskell, looks set to be banned for at least four weeks after being sent off for a dangerous tackle on Harlequins centre Jamie Roberts in the 33-28 defeat of Wasps on Saturday.
It leaves England head coach Jones with almost no other option than to play Exeter Chiefs' Sam Simmonds at No 8, having only handed the 23-year-old his Test debut last November and his first start in England's most recent game against Samoa.
Simmonds is one of the form players in the Premiership and played a starring role in Exeter Chiefs' emphatic 41-10 victory over Montpellier on Saturday, but he has not faced anything close to the challenge that the Six Nations will pose.
Other option for Jones include Bath's Zach Mercer, who despite captaining the England U-20s to the World Championship final last year is yet to be given his shot at international Test rugby.
Mercer has at least been a regular at England training camps this season in his role as an 'apprentice', but Jones has made no secret that he wants more from the 20-year-old before he can be promoted to the squad. Northampton Saints' resurgence in 2018 under Alan Gaffney has seen Teimana Harrison deployed at No 8, and with five caps to his name plus numerous training camp inclusions, he would provide at least more experience than the green Mercer.
If Jones were to feel that experienced is a problem, he could look to recall Gloucester's Ben Morgan, though the last of his 64 caps came in England's defeat by Australia that led to World Cup elimination in 2015.
Another option would be to start flanker Chris Robshaw at No 8, with both Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes able to fill his role at blindside and Bath openside Sam Underhill making a return from a two-month concussion lay-off last Friday.
© Independent News Service
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