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England select eight new faces for Italy opener including Alec Hepburn

Eddie Jones has named eight uncapped players in his England squad for the Six Nations opener in Italy, including Exeter's Alec Hepburn.

The Red Rose open the defence of their title in Rome on February 4 and Jones appears ready to give several players who have been on the fringes of selection an opportunity against the Azzurri.

Bath No.8 Zach Mercer is in line to be handed his debut for England in the absences of Nathan Hughes and Billy Vunipola, who are both injured, while 21-year-old Harlequins prop Lewis Boyce could also get a start with club mate Joe Marler unavailable through suspension.

Australian-born prop Hepburn is another in the mix to replace Marler after another strong season for Premiership champions Exeter with the other new faces in the squad made up of Newcastle flanker Gary Graham, Northampton full-back Harry Mallinder, Saracens winger Nathan Earle, Bath hooker Tom Dunn and Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith.

Jones says the absence of a few key players gives those without an England cap a chance to stake a claim for regular selection if they can put on a strong showing against Italy.

"I have selected the strongest available squad to prepare for our opening match against Italy," Jones said.

"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."

Along with Hughes, Vunipola and Marler, Jones is also missing Wasps flanker James Haskell through suspension, while winger Elliot Daly has an ankle problem.

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