LONDON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Eddie Jones has included eight uncapped players in his 35-man squad for next month’s Six Nations opener in Italy as he seeks to cover a number of injury absences while also continuing to build towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Jones, who on Wednesday extended his England contract until 2021, has promoted 20-year-old Zach Mercer to “full player” status after the Bath back rower was previously involved as an apprentice. Harlequins flyhalf Marcus Smith retains his apprentice status.
Mercer could be in line for his first cap in Rome on Feb. 4 as Jones deals with a back row crisis with Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes, Jack Clifford and Sam Underhill injured and James Haskell suspended.
Sam Simmonds, who made his debut in November, looks likely to start at number eight.
Harlequins’ 21-year-old prop Lewis Boyce is called up for the first time following club mate Joe Marler receiving a six-week suspension last week.
Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons) is retained having been involved in the England setup for the first time earlier this month in Brighton and Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs) receives his first call up into the senior squad.
Outside backs Nathan Earle (Saracens) and Harry Mallinder (Northampton Saints) are also named. Both travelled on England’s tour of Argentina in June but were not capped.
Full backs Mike Brown (Harlequins) Nathan Earle (Saracens)* Harry Mallinder (Northampton Saints)* Jonny May (Leicester Tigers) Denny Solomona (Sale Sharks) Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby)
Inside backs Danny Care (Harlequins) Owen Farrell (Saracens) George Ford (Leicester Tigers) Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby) Alex Lozowski (Saracens) Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs) Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs) Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors) Marcus Smith (Harlequins)* ** Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)
Back five Gary Graham (Newcastle Falcons)* Nick Isiekwe (Saracens) Maro Itoje (Saracens) George Kruis (Saracens) Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints) Joe Launchbury (Wasps) Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby)* Chris Robshaw (Harlequins) Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs) Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby)
Front row Lewis Boyce (Harlequins)* Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers) Tom Dunn (Bath Rugby)* Jamie George (Saracens) Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints) Alec Hepburn (Exeter Chiefs)* Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins) Mako Vunipola (Saracens) Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs)
Players unavailable Tom Curry (Sale Sharks) Elliot Daly (Wasps) Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby) Piers Francis (Northampton Saints) Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers) James Haskell (Wasps) Nathan Hughes (Wasps) Joe Marler (Harlequins) Matt Mullan (Wasps) Beno Obano (Bath Rugby) Semesa Rokoduguni (Bath Rugby) Will Spencer (Worcester Warriors) Billy Vunipola (Saracens) Uncapped * Apprentice player ** (Reporting by Mitch Phillips,; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)