England’s aim of starting Marcus Smith against Tonga on Saturday hangs in the balance as the Harlequins fly-half battles a leg injury.
Eddie Jones is “cautiously optimistic” that he will be able to field his intended 10-12 axis of Smith and captain Owen Farrell for the Autumn Nations Series opener at Twickenham.
But Smith’s involvement in training so far this week has been limited to ball handling only and doubt hovers over the 22-year-old’s fitness with a call due to be made on Thursday morning.
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“We’re being conservative with him but we’re cautiously optimistic that he’ll be right to play,” Jones said.
“We are keen for him to be involved in the game. If we don’t get to see him this week, we will get to see him next week.
“It’s not frustrating, it’s part and parcel of preparing a team. Players pick up small knocks and he’ll recover well.”
England’s backline resources have been hit by additional injuries with Freddie Steward also a doubt for the visit of the Pacific Islanders.
Steward has a leg issue as well – no further details have been provided by England – so is touch and go to continue at full-back after making his debut against the USA in July.
Complicating the issue in the back three is that Max Malins, the Gallagher Premiership’s leading try scorer this season with seven, has been ruled out to remove another option at 15.
And England’s injury problems also extend to scrum-half where Raffi Quirke has joined Harry Randall in the treatment room, leaving Ben Youngs and Alex Mitchell as the only fit players in the position.
“We had Max Malins and Raffi Quirke come into camp with injuries,” said Jones, who names his team on Thursday.
“They’ve been rehabbing but won’t be considered for selection for the Tongan game, but we’re hopeful they’ll be fitter further down the track.”
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When the extent of Malins’ injury became clear, Jones called Louis Lynagh back into the squad but in a twist the Harlequins wing – son of Australia great Michael Lynagh – has also been ruled out.
A bruising encounter against Saracens on Sunday has ended his hopes of making his debut against Tonga.
“Louis came in a bit beaten up after the game and so he hasn’t been able to train with us,” Jones said.
“With Max unavailable because of the injury he brought into camp, we just thought we needed additional cover. But unfortunately Louis is injured as well.
“We hoped he would recover but he hasn’t been able to train today (Tuesday). It’s been a difficult situation for the young lad.”
Jones dismissed the high injury rate as “all part and parcel of preparing an international team”, but will be frustrated that they have all been incurred by the exciting rookies who it is hoped will evolve England’s attacking game.
At the heart of that enterprise is Smith, the playmaking prodigy who starred during Harlequins’ Premiership title triumph last season, earning him first caps against USA and Canada and then a late call-up to the Lions tour.
Jones spoke on Sunday of his desire to pair Smith and Farrell together in a creative alliance in the hope they would fulfil his vision of England attacking earlier in phases and with more aggression.
England on Tuesday afternoon cut seven players from their squad for Tonga including number eights Sam Simmonds and Callum Chick, pointing to a shoot out for the position between Tom Curry and Alex Dombrandt.
Hooker Nic Dolly, flanker Lewis Ludlam, lock George Martin, full-back Tommy Freeman and Lynagh have also been sent back to their clubs.