England’s pack for their Six Nations defence has been further weakened after Joe Marler was ruled out of the start of the championship with a broken leg.
The Harlequins prop was withdrawn from Saturday’s match against Sale after feeling discomfort during the warm-up.
It was initially thought he had a calf problem but scans have revealed a fracture to his lower leg.
Quins say Marler will be out of action for “four to five weeks”, meaning he is expected to miss England’s first Six Nations match against France on 4 February and the trip to Wales the following weekend.
Marler’s absence is set to deprive head coach Eddie Jones of his two favoured options at loosehead for the opening rounds, with Saracens’ Mako Vunipola also currently sidelined following knee surgery.
Jones faces a further front-row headache regarding captain Dylan Hartley, with the hooker banned until late January and fighting to prove his match-fitness for the France game.
The back row has been decimated by injuries to Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola, while James Haskell remains a doubt. Centre Manu Tuilagi, like Robshaw, is also out for the whole Six Nations.
Jones has received better news on Joe Launchbury, however, after the Wasps lock confirmed he is set to return from a calf injury in the European Champions Cup fixture with Toulouse on Saturday.
“The rehab has gone really well,” Launchbury said. “As soon as I did it I was always really hopeful for this weekend. I’m delighted how it has gone and how the calf feels, so I’m ready to go again.”
Saracens’ Maro Itoje could replace Robshaw at blindside flanker, while young Leicester prop Ellis Genge has been tipped for a call-up when Jones names his squad next week.