James Haskell set to miss England’s Six Nations opener
England’s injury crisis mounts with Robshaw and Vunipola already sidelined
James Haskell of Wasps leaves the pitch with an injury during the Aviva Premiership match against Leicester Tigers. Photo: Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images
The chances of Maro Itoje kicking off the Six Nations in England’s back-row are increasing with the loose forwards James Haskell and Jack Clifford unlikely to be fully fit for the championship opener against France next week. Neither Haskell nor Clifford have flown out to Portugal for the national squad’s training camp this week with Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola already sidelined by injury.
Haskell is still experiencing problems with the toe injury that ruled him out for more than six months following England’s summer tour of Australia, while Clifford is said to have sustained a chest injury playing for Harlequins against Stade Français at the weekend. As George Kruis is now back in training following a broken cheekbone it shortens the odds even further on Itoje moving from second-row to flanker as the head coach, Eddie Jones, seeks to reshuffle his resources up front.
The latest injury bulletin also means England’s entire starting back-row from the grand slam campaign last year will be unavailable when the team commence their title defence. Jones is still weighing up his options but could be tempted to recall Kruis at lock alongside Wasps’ Joe Launchbury and field a remodelled loose-forward trio with Itoje, Tom Wood and Nathan Hughes. The other specialist back-rowers in the squad are Northampton’s Teimana Harrison and the uncapped Mike Williams of Leicester.
That combination would offer plenty of lineout potential, with Courtney Lawes also vying for a place in the matchday 23, but Itoje and Hughes have started three career Six Nations games between them. Kruis, Dylan Hartley and the prop Joe Marler are also all short of recent competitive rugby because of injury and suspension, although Kruis and Hartley have previously shown an ability to play successful Test rugby in similar circumstances.
Either way it is a blow for Haskell, who has described his lay-off as “the hardest six months of my professional career”. He also told BBC 5 live’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast that there had been “a time when I thought I was never going to make it back” as he waited impatiently for his toe problem to heal.
He lasted 35 seconds of his comeback match for Wasps against Leicester before sustaining a head knock and came off after 57 minutes of the European pool game against Zebre in Italy on Sunday. He will now undergo further medical assessment to determine whether he can play any active part in the Algarve, let alone the opening two rounds of the Championship.
With a British & Irish Lions tour also twinkling on the horizon this would be a desperate unfortunate time for his long-standing toe issues to resurface. Haskell emerged last year as one of the key figures in England’s rejuvenation and has long-held ambitions of becoming a Lion.