Eddie Jones names eight uncapped players in England Six Nations squad
Nathan Earle, Harry Mallinder, Marcus Smith, Alec Hepburn, Lewis Boyce, Gary Graham, Zach Mercer and Tom Dunn have been included.
England have named eight uncapped players in a 35-man squad selected to prepare for the NatWest 6 Nations opener against Italy on February 4.
A succession of injuries and suspensions – including to star players Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Nathan Hughes – have forced Eddie Jones to bring in a host of new faces.
Saracens wing Nathan Earle, Northampton centre Harry Mallinder and Harlequins full-back Marcus Smith are the rookie backs included.
Exeter prop Alec Hepburn, Harlequins prop Lewis Boyce, Newcastle flanker Gary Graham, Bath back row Zach Mercer and Bath hooker Tom Dunn make up the new faces in the forwards.
Mercer is no longer included as an apprentice in recognition of the injuries at number eight to Vunipola and Hughes, leaving Smith as the only player featuring in that capacity.
The training squad, which is absent of big-name omissions other than those who are unavailable, will travel to Portugal on Sunday to begin a week-long camp as build up to the trip to Rome.
“I’ve selected the strongest available squad to prepare for our opening match against Italy,” said Jones, who on Wednesday signed a contract extension until 2021.
“It’s important we start the tournament well and we will spend the next two weeks training smart and really fine-tuning our gameplan for the Italy match next month.
“I’m expecting a really positive training camp in Portugal and while we have a few players unavailable through injury or suspension, it has provided opportunity for others who will be desperate to be involved in the Italy game.”
England have listed 13 players who would have been selected but for injury or suspension.
Of those 13, four are loosehead props – hence the elevation of the 21-year-old Boyce – while Mercer will compete with Sam Simmonds for the vacancy at number eight.
“We’ve had a number of injuries which will test the depth and quality of English rugby, but that is a great challenge to have and we are so excited ahead of this tournament,” Jones said.
“Lewis Boyce is a good young, strong prop and he has his opportunity because of injuries to Ellis Genge, Matt Mullan and so he has a chance. He is a good chop tackler, a tough boy and player of the future.
“Zach Mercer has a chance of being selected, especially with the absence of Nathan and Billy.
“He comes into contention at the number eight role and we’ve been really impressed with how hard he’s worked at Bath on and off the field in terms of his defence. He’s a naturally gifted player in terms of attack and is exciting to watch.”
Jack Nowell and Ben Te’o are expected to make imminent returns from their ankle injuries, but the former is now being considered in midfield rather than wing.
“Jack Nowell is an option at 13, we have some great options there in Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade and Ben Te’o,” Jones said. “Ben Te’o has had good training at Worcester and hopefully he’ll have full training in Portugal and we can get him back on the field.”