Mako Vunipola has been ruled out for six weeks after suffering a calf tear last weekend, leaving England Rugby without their first-choice loosehead prop for the entire autumn international campaign and the four men who would be favourites to replace him.
The 27-year-old limped off during Saracens’ 13-3 European Champions Cup victory over Glasgow Warriors last Sunday, a match of high attrition that has already claimed younger brother Billy Vunipola after he broke his arm for the third time this year.
Saracens confirmed that Vunipola has suffered a calf strain, but assessment has since revealed that the muscle is torn and while it will not require surgery, it will still require six weeks of rehabilitation before he can play again.
“It looks like it’s going to be around six weeks as it’s a tear in his calf,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall on Wednesday afternoon.
The news leaves England head coach Eddie Jones without five of the best looseheads in the country, with Vunipola joining Ellis Genge, Beno Obano and Matt Mullan – who all have long-term knee injuries – on the sidelines. Joe Marler, very much Vunipola’s understudy throughout Jones’ reign, retired from international rugby last month after struggling with the mental pressures that came with being away from his family for long periods of time.
In their absence, Jones is likely to select Exeter Chiefs pair Ben Moon and Alec Hepburn in Thursday's squad announcement for the autumn internationals, as well as one of Gloucester's Val Raprava Ruskin, Bath's Nathan Catt and Harlequins' Lewis Boyce.
To add to Jones' growing injury crisis, Vunipola's Saracens teammate Nick Isiekwe will also miss all four November tests as he has been sidelined with an ankle injury, with the club expecting the forward to be out of action for eight weeks.
“He doesn’t require surgery either and will be eight weeks,” McCall added.
McCall also defended Saracens against questions over why their squad has suffered so many injuries of late, with Owen Farrell, Jamie George and Maro Itoje all leaving Glasgow with small injuries too. "It is what it is, isn't it?" said McCall. "Mako's is just a soft tissue injury. Nick just goes for a ball gets into an unfortunate position."
Isiekwe, who is primarily a lock but is equally-adept with performing at blindside flanker in a similar utility role to the one Maro Itoje has filled, joins Joe Launchbury in being ruled out of the entire November programme. That said, England are at least well-stocked in the lock departments, with Itoje likely to be joined by Courtney Lawes and George Kruis, while Dave Attwood, Charlie Ewels, Elliot Stooke and Ed Slater are all pushing for selection.
One player Jones cannot call on though is Exeter’s Sam Skinner after he was named in Gregor Townsend’s Scotland squad on Wednesday, with the second row eligible for both nations via his Ayr-born father Peter.