Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter has revealed that back-row Dave Ewers is unlikely to return from injury against London Irish on Sunday.
The 25-year-old blindside flanker has been out with a damaged medial ligament in his knee sustained in the win over Harlequins in November.
The Sandy Park outfit had eyed this Sunday's visit to Reading as a possible return date, but head coach Baxter now thinks that is unlikely.
He stated that Ewers' knee is healed, but was wary about subjecting him to the rigours of Premiership rugby having not played for so long.
"Dave is close, he is very close. He is taking a full part in training this week but I would think London Irish is probably still a little too close for him," Baxter told Exeter's website.
"He is very close though. We have to be careful we get Dave not only injury-right – which we think he is at the moment – but also make sure he is bang on and ready to play and he does not sustain stresses and strains on other parts of the body.
"We are very close and if this training week goes well then I would think we would then see Dave ready for selection. I don't want to put pressure on him incorrectly though. He will be ready when he is ready."
Ewers' form prior to his injury had led to speculation linking him to a call-up for Eddie Jones' England squad in the current Six Nations.
But Baxter revealed that he was hoping for a new and improved version given the time he has had to work on his strength and conditioning in the past few months.
"He has been working really hard all year, strengthening not only around his knee but also having a really good, solid block in the gym which some players do not get for quite a few seasons," Baxter said.
"He has worked extremely hard and actually I am going to be really interested when we do get him back on the pitch because his strength scores for a guy who is already phenomenally strong and phenomenally big are incredible and so is his body composition."