George Kruis will miss England's Six Nations opener against France on Saturday after it was confirmed he has suffered a knee ligament injury, placing any participation in the tournament in serious doubt.
The Saracens lock will see a specialist on Thursday and, while the Rugby Football Union has not put a time frame on the injury, Eddie Jones will be forced to rip up his plans to pair Kruis and Courtney Lawes in the second row against France. He must also decide whether to call on Joe Launchbury or further disrupt his plans by moving Maro Itoje – who was set to deputise at blindside flanker for the injured Chris Robshaw – back to lock.
"We'll have to wait and see what the specialist's prognosis is but we're not ruling him out of the Six Nations at this stage," said Jones in a brief RFU statement.
It is a major blow for Kruis, who made a remarkably swift return from ankle surgery to play in the second half of England’s autumn campaign and had recently recovered from a broken cheekbone. He is a commanding presence in England’s lineout and has started all the Tests under Jones for which he has been available.
Kruis suffered the knee injury in a training session on Tuesday described by James Haskell as "super intense" in which Jonny May required stitches after a bang of heads. Kruis's injury also comes just a few days after Anthony Watson was ruled out of the France game with a hamstring problem sustained in a sprint session and a couple of months after the intensity of England's training camp in Brighton was questioned after Watson, Sam Jones and Jack Nowell all picked up injuries.
Despite the criticism Jones has been determined to stick to his training methods but the latest in a line of setbacks is untimely, with his team announcement scheduled for Thursday. If he opts to move Itoje back to the second row, Teimana Harrison would be paired with Tom Wood at flanker.
Haskell is also an option but a place on the bench is more likely after only 55 minutes of game time since June. "If [MARO]starts at lock, it makes no odds. Maro is going to play the way he plays, whether he starts at lock, starts in the back row or is on the bench," said England's defence coach, Paul Gustard. "Wherever he plays, he is what he is; he carries well, he's good over the ball, he tackles hard and he's good in the line defensively. Wherever he is, we have to maximise those skills."
Jones is already without Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi and Billy and Mako Vunipola while Joe Marler, pencilled in to fill the void at loosehead, was diagnosed with a broken leg only three weeks ago, even if the head coach has consistently said the Harlequins front-row will be fit to face France.
With Dylan Hartley also set to lead the side having last tasted competitive action in early December and France expected to name a monstrous pack at Twickenham, there is the increasing danger that England’s forwards will be undercooked on Saturday. Haskell’s place in the matchday squad is already a calculated risk but Jones’s options are increasingly limited. He was outstanding in England’s 3-0 series whitewash in Australia last summer but he had a bad reaction to his toe injury after playing nearly an hour for Wasps at Zebre less than two weeks ago.
“I’m confident I am fine, so are the coaches here. If I get the opportunity to take to the field or start the game, then I will do my best,” said Haskell. “I have had six months of training, fitness and rehabilitation. The way we train here is super intense. Yesterday’s session was like an 80-minute game. I feel pretty prepared to do myself justice and do the team justice. I would not play if I didn’t think I could.”
Gustard also moved to ease the expectation on Nathan Hughes, who will make only his second start against France at No8, when it comes to providing ball-carrying ballast in the absence of the Vunipolas.
“There’s no surprise that Nathan has that responsibility because positionally there is a requirement for that person to carry the ball,” he added. “But for the rest of the players, it is a collective effort to pick up the extra 10 or 12 carries that we’ve been getting from the loosehead prop. There have to be some from the loosehead that we pick, then across the pack we have to pick up those carries from somewhere.”
Marler is set to be that loosehead and Gustard spoke glowingly of how the Harlequins prop has responded after choosing to miss the Australia tour for what he described as losing his love for the game. “Joe is the most capped guy we have [AT LOOSEHEAD], a former captain of his club and he’s an integral part of this group,” he said. “He had a very good Six Nations last year and obviously missed out in the summer but he has kicked on since then.
“He’s an experienced international player and he is a leader through actions. He is generally a very positive person. He is a vocal member of the group and it is great to have him in the squad.”