England hit by more injury troubles
England's preparations for their RBS 6 Nations opener against Wales have been thrown into disarray after a further four players were all but ruled out of the Millennium Stadium showdown.
Centres Brad Barritt and Kyle Eastmond, lock Geoff Parling and flanker Tom Wood are set to miss the trip to Cardiff on Friday week, head coach Stuart Lancaster indicated at the official Championship launch in south west London.
Barritt and Parling could recover from their knee ligament strains in time to face Italy on February 14, but their hopes of featuring against Wales have been described as "very unlikely" by Lancaster.
The outlook on Wood and Eastmond is bleaker, however, with their respective ankle and shoulder injuries requiring further specialist assessment and they are likely to be unavailable until deeper into the tournament.
A lone positive note from a brutal final round of European club action was sounded by Luther Burrell's ongoing recovery from concussion, with the centre on course to resume full training on Friday.
"Brad is very unlikely for Wales but the prognosis of him being long term isn't accurate. The injury is only 72 hours old, so it sometimes takes a while to settle," Lancaster said.
"We're reasonably hopeful that he'll be able to train in the Italy week, but it's similar with Geoff who is in the same category.
"Tom's also settling down and we're getting a second opinion just to be clear. We're hopeful he can be available for later in the tournament, but we can safely assume he'll struggle to be available for Wales.
"At the moment he's in a boot and he will stay in that boot until we know exactly what the situation is. As a consequence of being in a boot he can't train.
"Kyle is in a very similar situation to Tom. We're going to let the injury settle down. He'll go back to Bath, have a scan and see the specialist in the next 24 hours.
"We'll have a better idea then. He won't train Friday so the clock is ticking really on that one."
News of the quartet's unavailability for Cardiff - the setting for England's humiliating 30-3 rout two years ago - was delivered less than 24 hours after fly-half Owen Farrell had been ruled out of the entire Six Nations with a knee problem.
Farrell joined number eight Ben Morgan and lock Joe Launchbury on the list of long-term absentees, while major doubts hang over the participation of centre Manu Tuilagi and second row Courtney Lawes.
England will limp into the Welsh capital for a seismic Championship opener against their World Cup group opponents missing a core of experienced players, challenging even Lancaster's glass half full outlook.
"It's an opportunity - he says through gritted teeth! It was a tough weekend watching the Champions Cup games and you sit there with your fingers crossed," Lancaster said.
"Unfortunately three or four big players got varying degrees of injury which is hugely disappointing, particularly for the likes of Owen who worked so hard to get back following a similar type of injury during the summer.
"Geoff, Brad, Tom, Owen - there's a strong leadership group there. It's disappointing and now some decisions need to be made. It was just one of those weekends.
"But internally we're still confident that we'll have a pretty strong team. We back ourselves to get the best out of our players."