England’s Six Nations preparations have been rocked again with Joe Marler and Joe Launchbury – two of their most senior forwards – withdrawing from Eddie Jones’s squad. Marler has pulled out citing family reasons while Launchbury has a fractured fibia and faces a race against time to return before the championship’s conclusion in March.
It is understood Marler’s wife, Daisy, is pregnant with their fourth child and as the England players will not be allowed out of their biosecure bubble – aside from the two fallow weeks – for the entire tournament, the 30-year-old prop has opted against joining up with the squad at St George’s Park on Wednesday. Marler’s withdrawal leaves Ellis Genge as the only previously capped loosehead prop in Jones’s squad with Mako Vunipola also sidelined by a calf injury.
“Always grateful for the opportunity so not an easy decision but want to do right by my family in these crazy times and won’t be meeting up with the squad for this tournament,” Marler wrote on Twitter.
Marler retired from international duty in September 2018, only to later reverse the decision, and has spoken candidly in the past about dreading England camps and the consequent prolonged spells away from his family.
His decision highlights the difficulties faced by international players in the coming months: the Wasps back Matteo Minozzi has also make himself unavailable for Italy because he is “physically and mentally tired - a little too much so to spend the next two months in a bubble”. Jones – who is self-isolating and will miss the first day of England’s camp as a result – has called up Tom West of Wasps in Marler’s absence, while Beno Obano now looks in line for a debut from the bench against Scotland on Saturday week.
Launchbury, meanwhile, sustained a stress fracture to his tibia while training with Wasps on an artificial pitch last week and is expected to be sidelined for six weeks, according to the club’s director of rugby, Lee Blackett. It is a desperate blow for the Wasps captain, who started all of England’s Autumn Nations Cup matches in the absence of George Kruis and Courtney Lawes. Bath’s Charlie Ewels has been called up from Jones’s 12-man shadow squad.
“We fully expect [Joe] to be out for up to six weeks,” said Blackett. “Ideally, he will stay with us and our medics and we’ll try our best to get him back for the last couple of games of the Six Nations, that’s our aim for Joe.” Blackett also explained how Wasps made England aware of an approach from Italy for Paolo Odogwu for the coming Six Nations, prompting Jones to make his move hours later. Odogwu was rewarded with his stunning form for Wasps this season with a first England call-up last week but is also eligible for the Azzurri through his half-Italian father.
“Me and Paolo had a conversation about Italy,” said Blackett. “We made England aware of that, as we would do. And before I had a chance to do anything, Eddie Jones had rung him. That’s how quick it moved. Now it’s up to Paolo to work as hard as possible to prove to Eddie that he’s worth a start, or a place on the bench. The most important thing with Paolo – too many people focus on what players can’t do. You’ve got to focus on what he can do, and how destructive he can be.”
The former England wing Chris Ashton has joined Worcester from Harlequins with immediate effect until the end of next season. The 33-year-old spent less than a year at Harlequins and follows the head of rugby Paul Gustard in leaving the club this month. Elsewhere, the Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has omitted the wing Jacob Stockdale, who has been hampered by a knee injury, and scrum-half John Cooney from his Six Nations squad. The Munster scrum-half Craig Casey and Ulster’s prop Tom O’Toole have been included and could win their first caps.