Eddie Jones has mounting injury headaches before England’s opening autumn international against Tonga on Saturday with Marcus Smith a doubt to face the Pacific Islanders, potentially disrupting the head coach’s plans to unleash a new-look 10-12 axis.
Compounding matters for Jones is a report that the scrum-half Harry Randall, who has been ruled out of the entire autumn series, was injured during a paddleboarding session as part of a team-bonding exercise in Jersey last week. In addition, Max Malins, Louis Lynagh and Raffi Quirke will all miss the match at Twickenham with injuries sustained before coming into camp.
Smith has been severely restricted in training this week due to a lower leg injury and faces a race against time to prove his fitness before Jones names his starting XV to face Tonga on Thursday. Jones remains “cautiously optimistic” Smith will be fit to play some part in the match but having already revealed his intention to pair the in-form fly-half with his captain, Owen Farrell, in a revamped midfield, the head coach could be forced into a rethink.
Jones also has problems at full-back with doubts lingering over Freddie Steward, who also has a lower leg injury, and as a result George Furbank has been retained in Jones’s truncated squad. Scrum-half is a problem position, too.
The RFU has insisted that Randall was cleared to train after the paddleboarding session and his hip injury was diagnosed after a subsequent rugby session but his absence, and that of Quirke, leaves Jones light in that department. If Smith is ruled out, meanwhile, Farrell would switch to fly-half with Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade the likely centre pairing, though the uncapped Mark Atkinson has also been retained.
“[Marcus] hasn’t done much this week, just a bit of ball handling,” Jones said. “We’re being conservative with him but we’re cautiously optimistic that he’ll be right to play. The last call we make is 48 hours before the game.
“We are keen for [Marcus] to be involved in the game. It’s not frustrating, it’s part and parcel of preparing a team, players pick up small knocks, and he’ll recover well. If we don’t get to see him this week we will get to see him next week.”
Malins and Quirke were named in the 28-man squad on Tuesday night but neither is in contention to face Tonga, meaning Northampton’s scrum-half Alex Mitchell is set for the matchday 23 with Randall also absent. There was no place, however, for Sam Simmonds, who waits for another England cap having last appeared under Jones in 2018.
The Saracens hooker Jamie George has been kept on, having been initially left out of the squad, while Alex Dombrandt, Adam Radwan and Jamie Blamire are all set to add to the caps they won over the summer.