Ed Slater's hopes of being involved in England's RBS 6 Nations campaign have been dashed by a knee injury that has ruled him out for up to two months.
The Leicester captain, who can play in the second and back rows, sustained medial ligament damage when making a tackle in the first half of Saturday's Aviva Premiership defeat at Saracens. While the Tigers are optimistic he will not require surgery, he will miss at least the first half of the Six Nations and, given his position on the fringes of the team, the injury had denied him precious opportunities to impress new England head coach Eddie Jones.
Slater was touted by some pundits as a possible Red Rose captain despite having yet to make his Test debut, but a bleak injury update issued by Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill has ended any chance of that unlikely scenario unfolding.
"Ed has medial ligament damage. It's not too bad but it will probably be six to eight weeks. It's not ideal or what we needed," Cockerill said. "Hopefully he won't need surgery but we'll only be able to make a decision on that once the swelling has gone down.
"Thankfully the injury is not to the same knee that caused his problems last season. It's just bad luck rather than because of ongoing problems."
Slater joins England's ever-lengthening list of injuries with props Kieran Brookes and Alex Corbisiero, back row Dave Ewers, wing Jonny May and centres Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi set to miss all or part of the Six Nations. Tuilagi will not be involved in Saturday's East Midlands derby against Northampton as he nears the end of his recovery from a long-term groin injury that has prevented him from playing since October 2014.
The absence of any A-league fixtures until March means that the earliest date for Tuilagi's return will be the Champions Cup clash with Benetton on Saturday week.
"Manu will play when he's ready to play. He's very close to playing, we just have to make sure he's right," Cockerill said.
Cockerill revealed that the debut of Jean de Villiers is drawing close, but the former South Africa captain remains a fortnight away from full fitness as he recovers from his broken jaw and a winter sickness bug.
"We have to be patient with Manu and Jean, when they're fit to play we'll bring them back. There's a lot of rugby to be played until the end of the season," Cockerill said. "We're hoping Jean will be ready in a couple of weeks. He's broken his jaw and has had four months of not playing so we need to get his volumes right.
"We don't want to throw him into a game and he breaks down because we haven't managed his volumes well enough."
England flanker Tom Croft will face Northampton at Welford Road if he passes the return to play protocols for concussion after taking a blow to the head against Saracens.
Cockerill said: "Croft slid off a tackle, cracked his tooth, got himself concussed and sliced his ear open! I've told him his tackling his rubbish! He's a bit dazed from the bang and we'll look after him. If he passes the concussion test he's good to go."