The 2018 NatWest Six Nations Championship is looming - and England's first training squad for the tournament has been named.
Head coach Eddie Jones has revealed the names in a 35-man group that will fly to Portugal for a training camp following the weekend's fixtures. After spending a week there, they will reconvene at Pennyhill Park on January 29th ahead of the opening fixture in Rome on February 4th.
Fans booking corporate hospitality for England's first home game at Twickenham, when they face Wales on February 10th, may be particularly interested at the make-up of the squad as no less than eight uncapped players are included.
Jones has drafted in 21-year-old Harlequins prop Lewis Boyce and Alec Hepburn of Exeter Chiefs for the first time, while other players have featured in England squads before without yet making it onto the field. These include Gary Graham of Newcastle Falcons, who trained with the squad in Brighton earlier this month, plus outside backs Nathan Earle from Saracens and Northampton Saints starlet Harry Mallinder, who were both in last summer's tour party for the trip to Argentina.
The other uncapped players in the squad are Harlequins inside forward Marcus Smith and two Bath Rugby players, as Zach Mercer joins the backs and forward Tom Dunn is included.
While the inclusion of several new players shows that the head coach is open to finding and developing new talent ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan, the move is also linked with a long list of absences due to injury and suspension, with regulars like Joe Marler, Elliot Daly, Semesa Rokoduguni, Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and James Haskell among the 13 players listed as unavailable.
Despite this, the 27 capped players have 898 appearances between them, with perhaps the most welcome inclusion being that of Maro Itoje, whose participation in the early rounds of the tournament had been in doubt after he broke his jaw in the autumn while playing a club game for Saracens.
Speaking about the squad, Jones said: "I have selected the strongest available squad to prepare for our opening match against Italy.
"It is important we start the tournament well and we will spend the next two weeks training smart and really fine-tuning our game plan for the Italy match next month.
"I am 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 should be very confident going into their opening fixture in Rome, as they have won all 23 of the internationals played between the sides down the years. Most of these have been Six Nations fixtures.
Last year saw England defeat the Azzurri 36-15 at Twickenham, scoring six tries as they overcame a shock 5-10 deficit at the break.
The last time the sides met at the Stadio Olimpico brought a more emphatic victory for Eddie Jones' men, as they won by 40-9.
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