Bath number eight Zach Mercer is in line to make his England debut in their Six Nations opener against Italy after losing his “apprentice” tag.The 20-year-old is one of eight uncapped players in coach Eddie Jones’ squad for the 4 February game in Rome.First-choice number eight Billy Vunipola is set to miss the entire tournament with a fractured arm, while Nathan Hughes is also missing.
“It’s an opportunity for him,” Jones told BBC Sport.”He’s had a fairly short apprenticeship because of the fact Billy and Nathan are both out now. We would have liked him to have learned a little bit longer from those two boys.”But he’s got his opportunity and he’s got to front up.”England’s Six Nations fixturesSunday 4 FebruaryItaly (a)Saturday 10 FebruaryWales (h)Saturday 24 FebruaryScotland (a)Saturday 10 MarchFrance (a)Saturday 17 MarchIreland (h)Mercer trained with England during the autumn internationals as an “apprentice” player.But Jones has seen a marked improvement in Mercer’s displays over the past few months.”I think he’s ready. He’s done well for Bath and really toughened his game up. There’s an opportunity for him.”Jones also says he doesn’t think Vunipola will play any part in the Championship after suffering a fractured arm. “At this stage we can’t see Billy being available,” he added.In addition to Hughes and Vunipola’s injuries, Jones is without British and Irish Lions winger Elliot Daly, who has an ankle problem.Wasps flanker James Haskell and Harlequins prop Joe Marler are banned for the opener against Italy and 10 February’s home fixture against Wales after being found guilty of dangerous play for their club sides.
The absences have paved the way for a host of international rookies with Harlequins’ 20-year-old prop Lewis Boyce, Exeter front-rower Alec Hepburn and Newcastle flanker Gary Graham among the uncapped inclusions.Northampton full-back Harry Mallinder, Saracens winger Nathan Earle, Bath hooker Tom Dunn and Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith, who remains listed as an apprentice, are the other uncapped players in the squad.Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, whose last start for England was in June 2014, has been left out as the 26-year-old continues his latest comeback from injury at Welford Road.However, the Worcester centre Ben Te’o is included, despite an ankle injury that has kept him out since October.’There is no reason for us to turn up’England start as tournament favourites as they look to seal an unprecedented third straight Six Nations title.However Jones feels his side start as relative underdogs given the domestic strength of the Irish provinces in Europe this season.
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“Ireland are dominating European rugby at the moment. Their provincial sides are doing well, their national side has had great success,” Jones continued. “Everyone talks about their central contracting and how they have their players in fantastic condition. “So I don’t know why the other teams bother to turn up. But we will get in there and we will compete.”If you read most of the popular press there’s no reason for us to turn up. But I think we have a point or two to prove.”Jones holds fire on Vellacott
There had been speculation that Gloucester scrum-half Ben Vellacott would join fellow Scotland age-grade international Graham in Jones’ 35-strong squad.The Surrey-born 22-year-old, like Graham, played for Scotland at under-20 level, but will only be committed to a country once he plays for a senior second-string side.Jones has instead opted for only two specialist scrum-halves in Danny Care and Ben Youngs.’He is a big strong boy’
Boyce has followed the same path as Quins team-mate Care, having been educated at Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley and played for Yorkshire Carnegie, before moving south for the start of this season.”He is a funny lad, a typical northern lad,” Care told BBC Radio 5 live. “He is a big strong boy and if he gets the ball he is someone you are going to want to watch. He hits pretty hard in defence as well.”Boyce has made 12 appearances for Quins since making the step up from the Championship.England squad to face ItalyBacksMike Brown (Harlequins), Nathan Earle (Saracens), Harry Mallinder (Northampton), Jonny May (Leicester Tigers), Denny Solomona (Sale Sharks), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Danny Care (Harlequins), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Leicester), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Alex Lozowski (Saracens),Jack Nowell (Exeter), Henry Slade (Exeter), Ben Te’o (Worcester) Marcus Smith (Harlequins) **, Ben Youngs (Leicester)ForwardsGary Graham (Newcastle), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Kruis (Saracens), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Joe Launchbury (Wasps)Zach Mercer (Bath), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Sam Simmonds (Exeter), Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby), Lewis Boyce (Harlequins), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Tom Dunn (Bath), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley (Northampton), Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs)** – Apprentice playerInsight and chat – subscribe to the Rugby Union Weekly podcast
Source: Wiltshire BBC