England may well have to turn to an uncapped loosehead prop for their Six Nations opener in Italy in under four weeks’ time.
Senior options Joe Marler, Ellis Genge, Bevan Rodd and Mako Vunipola are all doubts and it is currently unclear whether any will be available in time for Steve Borthwick’s sophomore Six Nations.
Sale’s Rodd is the only definite absentee for the 3 February fixture in Rome, ruled out of the entire tournament after foot surgery. Genge is in the final stages of his recovery from a hamstring strain sustained in December, but it is currently unclear whether he will return to full fitness for England’s first or second Six Nations match.
Harlequins front-rower Marler, the most experienced international of the quartet, injured his arm against Gloucester at Twickenham and his club are unsure when he will return.
Quins coaching coordinator Danny Wilson said: “Joe is in a week-by-week process at the moment. We are in the middle of a full assessment.
“I know that is going to sound a little bit like it is taking a while to assess, but there is a little bit to this one, so until we get a full picture and a full time frame — and we are in that process at the moment — then I can’t really tell you a huge amount.
“He is not going to play this weekend — that is pretty clear — but what I can’t give is a time frame. There have been a few twists and turns with it.”
Meanwhile, Vunipola’s four-match suspension for a dangerous tackle on Newcastle Falcons hooker Bryan Byrne started on 30 December and will be over by the time England face Italy – but that does not necessarily mean Borthwick plans on selecting the 32-year-old.
Vunipola missed the World Cup having had back surgery last summer and has not featured since the 2023 Six Nations.
Marler’s Quins replacement Fin Baxter has been touted as his international stand-in too. The 21-year-old is highly rated at club level and has featured for England U20s, one of four options mentioned by Borthwick when he spoke for the first time post-World Cup last week.
Wilson said of Baxter: “He’s a really exciting talent. He’s been outstanding recently. Joe has difficult shoes to fill for a whole host of reasons. I don’t think Fin will bring the leadership Joe does, but what he does do is carry well, scrum well for us, is getting round and playing our game model and we’re really pleased with him.
“He’s certainly one England should be excited about for the future — he’s that good. If he were selected to be involved he would give 100 per cent. He is outperforming his experience.
“The saying goes that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. He’s showing he’s capable of that. Obviously the next level is a big step up, but I certainly think Fin Baxter, given the opportunity, will surprise a few people.”
Another possible option is Bath’s Beno Obano, who has featured for England before, against Scotland, Canada and the United States.
Obano, who moonlights as an award-winning documentary maker and is also Maro Itoje’s cousin, has recently returned from injury in fine form and may well be the best option available to start the Six Nations.
Another option is Newcastle Falcons’ Phil Brantingham, who was shortlisted for the Rugby Player Association young player of the month last September.
Local lad Brantingham has featured in every game so far this season for Falcons, a bright spark in a season in which they haven’t won a Premiership match, and he has been linked with a move to Saracens in recent weeks. He is perhaps not quite ready to start at international level, but will almost undoubtedly make the step up at some point soon.
The final name Borthwick mentioned was Tarek Haffar, the 22-year-old Saints loosehead prop. Haffar joined Northampton last summer after the demise of London Irish and while he did not make his debut until December, he is still highly rated.
Northampton’s director of rugby Phil Dowson said: “[Haffar] has both the physical and mental ability to push on and become a top-class loosehead prop. He has a lot of power and loves to get involved and carry the ball as well.”