Underhill and Willis in doubt as England face Australia injury crisis

England are facing a potential back‑row crisis for the deciding Test against Australia in Sydney with Eddie Jones counting the cost of the hard-fought victory against the Wallabies in Brisbane.

Sam Underhill and Jack Willis are both doubtful for the third Test this Saturday and, with Tom Curry already leaving the tour prematurely with a head injury, Jones’s options at flanker are severely limited.

Underhill started the 25-17 victory in the second Test on Saturday but sustained a head injury in the second half. After initially lying motionless on his back he groggily got to his feet and attempted to play on before medics intervened. Given Underhill’s concussion history and the fact that World Rugby moved to tighten the return-to-play protocols at the start of the month, the Bath flanker is unlikely to be considered for England’s first visit to the Sydney Cricket Ground since 1975.

Willis, meanwhile, was named among the replacements in Brisbane with Jones initially opting for a 6-2 split on the bench but the Wasps openside was withdrawn shortly before kick-off with a rib injury and will be assessed on Monday. Maro Itoje, who sustained a nasty-looking blow to the head in the first half, has already been ruled out of the Sydney Test.

Lewis Ludlam would be the most likely to fill the void at openside if Underhill and Willis are ruled out, but beyond that Jones has no options of which to speak. Sam Jeffries was a late replacement for Charlie Ewels at the start of the tour and can cover both lock and back‑row, but is yet to win his cap and received his first England call-up only in June.

When Curry was ruled out of the rest of the tour last week it is understood that Jones looked into calling up a replacement, with London Irish’s Tom Pearson under consideration. But ultimately he decided there were no viable alternatives given the length of time it would take players to travel and get up to speed. As a result he will be anxiously awaiting medical updates on Underhill and Willis – all the more so given that the breakdown battle has proved so pivotal in both matches to date – for what he has billed as a World Cup final after their series-levelling victory in Brisbane, where Australia had won their 10 previous matches.

“It was a pressure game,” Jones said. “We had to keep our composure and keep finding a way to go forward and that’s a good dress rehearsal for a World Cup semi-final because that was like a World Cup semi-final.”

Australia have problems of their own with Jordan Petaia, Cadeyrn Neville, Izaia Perese and Scott Sio injured in Brisbane but Itoje’s absence will be significant for England given how dominant their maul was last Saturday, providing the platform for Billy Vunipola’s try. Itoje was far improved on his Perth showing before making way as England gained the ascendancy in a key aspect of the match with a dominant showing from their forwards in the first half.

“Richard Cockerill’s done a great job improving our maul,” Jones said. “We obviously got a fair bit of benefit out of that. That helps with the psyche. Having been an Australia coach, the one thing you don’t like is to get mauled by the English team. You see the fans don’t like it. In England everyone roars when there’s a maul. In Australia they go ‘shit, can you do something else’. That’s the difference.”

The hooker Jamie George echoed that sentiment, revealing it was a match England had to win on the back of four straight defeats, despite Jones’s pre-match claim that the Test was “perfect practice” for the World Cup. “We know there has been some frustration among the fans and rightly so,” George said.

“We have not had the results that we wanted over the last few games, dating back to the Six Nations. At the same time, when you are in it you know that it is part of the journey. At the same time you need results. We want to put smiles on faces for the people back home and hopefully we did that today.

“In terms of the tour it was massive. If you go 2-0 down, it is all doom and gloom. I have been there myself. You start playing for pride and no one wants to do that. It was really important for us to get the win and bring on Sydney.”