England No8 Billy Vunipola is a major doubt for this year’s Rugby World Cup after being ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
The bulldozing back row is set to undergo surgery on Thursday after suffering the problem in Saracens’ bruising Champions Cup defeat at La Rochelle on Sunday.
Vunipola’s club have refused to set a date for his return until after the operation, but the setback leaves him facing a race to be fit for the World Cup in September.
Even if the knee does recover, the 30-year-old may not have any games in which to press his claims for a recall by Steve Borthwick.
The injury means Vunipola will miss Saracens’ final three matches of the regular Premiership season, as well as their play-off contests.
“Billy suffered a knee injury during Sunday’s Champions Cup quarter-final against La Rochelle,” the league leaders said. “He will therefore miss the remainder of the 2022/23 season. We’re all behind you, Billy!”
Borthwick’s back row options have been further reduced after flanker Jack Willis signed a new three-year contract with Toulouse.
Playing overseas will mean Willis is ineligible for England selection, based on the current criteria.
In other domestic rugby news, former England wing Chris Ashton has announced that he is to retire at the end of the season.
Ashton started out in rugby league before switching codes and setting try-scoring records in the Premiership and Heineken Cup.
“I’ve just felt, this season, that my body is not able to do what I want it to do any more,” Ashton said.
“I’m still enjoying the game, enjoying being in and around the team and the game every day, but if I’m not able to keep the standards that I expect of myself, then it’s the right time for me to retire.
“I’m content with the decision and, honestly, I definitely wouldn’t have been – had I not been able to come to Leicester – able to get back into the game and finish my career on my terms.”