Courtney Lawes has been withdrawn from England’s Six Nations squad due to a calf injury, continuing a highly-frustrating season for the 33-year-old and ridding Steve Borthwick of one of his vice-captains.
Lawes limped off within half an hour of Northampton Saints’ loss to La Rochelle on Saturday. It was just his third start of a campaign that has been disrupted by concussion and a gluteal muscle issue. David Ribbans, Lawes’ Northampton colleague and a surprise omission from the initial squad, has been called up.
Meanwhile, England are facing an injury crisis at hooker after a knee injury to George McGuigan. Tom Dunn has travelled to Pennyhill Park to join a five-day training camp.
With Luke Cowan-Dickie also injured, Jamie George suffered a concussion in the first half of Saracens’ loss to Edinburgh on Sunday evening. He will face a 12-day stand-down period as a minimum, and could yet face a ban as well given that he was injured in a high tackle on Luke Crosbie. The uncapped Jack Walker is the third hooker in England’s squad.
Lawes skippered the team as recently as last summer in a 2-1 series win over Australia. Borthwick appointed him alongside Ellis Genge as one of two vice-captains under Owen Farrell and was effusive in his praise of Lawes. Kevin Sinfield, the England defence coach, was equally enthusiastic.
“The way that Courtney influences those around, not by what he says but was he does, is infectious,” Sinfield said a week ago. “If someone is playing 7 out of 10 and Courtney is next to them, you suddenly get an 8 or a 9. That is an unbelievable quality and he has that.”
Ribbans’ call-up is the first step of what will have to be a reshaping of the back five of England’s pack. As well as Ribbans, Borthwick has Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill, Ollie Chessum and Nick Isiekwe covering lock with Lewis Ludlam, Ben Curry, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds as his back-rowers.
Chessum, previously earmarked by Eddie Jones as a player capable of fulfilling a similar role to that of Lawes as a lineout-jumping blindside flanker, will come into the back row reckoning as well.
Regarding George’s potential return ahead of Scotland, Borthwick said: “Jamie will follow return-to-play protocols, which give you a daily plan with daily assessments. He was good after the game so now follows that protocol, it can be 12 days. You have to assess what are symptoms and non-symptoms. The protocol has been in place for a period of time, which we’ll follow.
“[Lawes and McGuigan] are undergoing scans today [Monday], seeing specialists as soon as possible after that and we’ll have a full understanding of the extent and their plans thereafter.”
Borthwick added that Mako Vunipola and Elliot Daly would also be assessed for injuries from Saracens’ game, with England meeting at Pennyhill Park for the first time under Borthwick on Monday evening before training on Tuesday.
Borthwick added: “I’ve been asked about how little time we have to prepare and about injuries, and they’re good questions. All I’ll say as a coach is there are players who will be missing, that’s clear. We have a fantastic squad to coach with an incredible captain who want to start putting in performances which we can be proud of.”
Progressive Rugby, the player welfare lobby group, has criticised George’s return to the field in Sunday’s game, suggesting that George showed clear concussion symptoms and therefore should not have been eligible for a head injury assessment.
“In our view England hooker Jamie George demonstrated clear category 1 symptoms and has wrongly undergone a HIA instead of being permanently removed. This failure of process, which again calls into question the effectiveness of the HIA tool, not only puts the player at potentially catastrophic risk but is damaging to the image of the game we all love,” read a statement.
“At a time when the amateur game is being asked to undertake significant change on. The grounds of safety, it’s incumbent on the professional game to get their house in order. We ask that the relevant governing body investigate this incident as a matter of urgency and wish Jamie George all the best with his recovery.”
Who is in England’s Six Nations sqaud?
Ollie Chessum (Leicester Tigers, 5 caps)
Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers, 95 caps)
Ben Curry (Sale Sharks,1 cap)
Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins, 9 caps)
Tom Dunn (Bath, 3 caps)
Ben Earl (Saracens, 13 caps)
Ellis Genge (Bristol Bears, 43 caps)
Jamie George (Saracens, 72 caps)
Joe Heyes (Leicester Tigers, 7 caps)
Jonny Hill (Sale Sharks, 19 caps)
Nick Isiekwe (Saracens, 8 caps)
Maro Itoje (Saracens, 62 caps)
Lewis Ludlam (Northampton Saints, 14 caps)
Dave Ribbans (Northampton Saints, 4 caps)
Bevan Rodd (Sale Sharks, 2 caps)
Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, 18 caps)
Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, 56 caps)
Mako Vunipola (Saracens, 74 caps)
Jack Walker (Harlequins, uncapped)
Jack Willis (Toulouse, 6 caps)
Elliot Daly (Saracens, 57 caps)
Owen Farrell (Saracens, 101 caps)
Tommy Freeman (Northampton Saints, 3 caps)
Ollie Hassell-Collins (London Irish, uncapped)
Dan Kelly (Leicester Tigers, 1 cap)
Max Malins (Saracens, 14 caps)
Joe Marchant (Harlequins, 13 caps)
Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints, 1 cap)
Cadan Murley (Harlequins, uncapped)
Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs, 52 caps)
Fin Smith (Northampton Saints, uncapped)
Marcus Smith (Harlequins, 17 caps)
Freddie Steward (Leicester Tigers, 17 caps)
Manu Tuilagi (Sale Sharks, 50 caps)
Jack van Poortvliet (Leicester Tigers, 7 caps)
Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers, 121 caps)
Who has missed out?
The headline omissions from Borthwick squad are Jack Nowell, Jonny May and Billy Vunipola – all of whom played a huge part of England sides during the tenure of Eddie Jones.
Their respective non-selection offers the clearest indication yet of the new regime’s departure from the old, as Borthwick looks to blood new talent who have shown top-level form for their clubs.
Other notable names to be left out include Alex Coles, Hugh Tizzard, Val Rapava Ruskin, Joe Cokanasiga and George Furbank.
Who is injured?
As ever, Borthwick has been forced to exclude certain names due to injuries.
The loss of star flanker Tom Curry and Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie will sting especially, with both likely to have been starters against Scotland should they have been fit.
Injury continues to keep dynamic winger Henry Arundell out of contention, while Jack Singleton, Guy Porter and Raffi Quirke have all also been ruled out.
Courtney Lawes’ withdrawal is the latest blow for Borthwick. And a knee injury to George McGuigan, plus Jamie George’s concussion, has created a major issue at hooker.