Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

England’s chances of levelling the three-Test series against the Springboks are being hampered by continued doubts over the availability of experienced lock Joe Launchbury for Saturday’s second match in Bloemfontein.

Launchbury was sorely missed in the first Test in Johannesburg, with the second row in particular struggling to meet the expectations of coach Eddie Jones, who surprised some with his decision to replace young Nick Isiekwe before half-time.

Afterwards Jones described it as a tactical substitution aimed at adjusting the pack to the pace of the game, but there is a feeling among the England scribes that Jones humiliated the 20-year-old and the substitution was an indication that the coach feels he does not yet hit the mark as an international tight forward.

Maro Itoje was not good either in the 42-39 defeat, and if Launchbury is unavailable on Saturday the visitors will lack experience in the second row. Launchbury has been one of Jones’s key players over the past few seasons but was unable to play at Emirates Airline Park because of a calf problem picked up 11 days ago. He is on the mend, but he did not train with the team on Tuesday.

"Joe was at training this morning but was training on his own," said scrum coach Neal Hatley. "He was training reasonably well so we’ll see where he is later in the week.

"We will see if he is able to train tomorrow [Wednesday]. We need to see how he feels after seeing the physios."

Hatley did not share the alarm of the media at the prospect of Jones having to revert to Isiekwe and denied that being substituted so early would have been a blow to his confidence. "He is just 20 years old and we don’t judge a player on just one game but on what he produces over a period of time.

"Obviously Nick has a lot of potential so we must keep giving him opportunities. The substitution was not an individual-based thing, it was just about what the team needed on the day.

"Nick acknowledged that and the senior players all helped him through it afterwards."

Nonetheless, it would be a surprise if Isiekwe was selected to start in Bloemfontein, and with Jonny Hill as the only other second-row cover, there is the prospect that Brad Shields, who made his debut as a replacement last weekend and captains the Hurricanes in Super Rugby, will be used as a lock.

As Hatley noted, he has played there before, but he is regularly utilised on the flank.

"We didn’t call out another lock to cover because we feel with Brad in the squad we do have lock cover. He played 45 minutes in the second row last week anyway and has played for the Hurricanes in the second row. We thought we might need him so he trained there a bit in the first week of the tour."

The good news for England on Tuesday was seeing reserve hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie take part in the morning training session, and he has been cleared to play in Bloemfontein. Jack Singleton has been flown out from England to add to the reserve depth in the position but it looks unlikely he will be called on.

"We did some live scrums and Luke took part in those. He’s good to go," said Hatley.

Meanwhile, although the ferocity of the first Test kept England from training on Monday, Hatley believes the squad has done the analysis needed to overturn the first Test defeat.

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