England looks 'miles away' to Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

John Fletcher, the recently appointed director of rugby at Newcastle, yesterday described Jonny Wilkinson's latest orthopaedic trauma - one that to all intents and purposes rules the benighted outside-half out of England's autumn international series - as an "industrial injury". Wilkinson certainly suffers setbacks on an industrial scale. If Comrade Stalin had been his manager, he would have organised a Five-Year Plan around him.

The man who dropped the goal that won the World Cup for England in 2003, since when he has failed to appear in any of his country's 26 Tests, suffered a partial tear of the medial ligament in his right knee after his colleague and close friend, the lock Andy Buist, fell on him during the narrow Premiership victory over Worcester at Kingston Park last Friday. Newcastle say he will be incapacitated for between four and eight weeks. Ligaments being ligaments, Wilkinson is looking towards the more pessimistic end of that spectrum.

"I have gone past the stage of asking 'why me?', 'why does it always happen?'," he said. "I am at the stage now where I get injured and immediately tune in to what I have to do next. I have started to come to terms with my situation and accept the injuries more quickly. Rather than waste mental energy feeling frustrated, I am instead thinking about what I can do to cut down the rehab time. I know some people will immediately start thinking about what this means regarding the autumn international season. I guess it does not augur well, but to be honest, thoughts of England are miles away."

England take on New Zealand on 5 November, Argentina six days later and then play back-to-back matches with the Springboks. It is a demanding programme and under the circumstances, they could do with a clear run on the injury front. Things are anything but clear at the moment, sadly. Besides Wilkinson, who was emerging as a hot favourite to perform the inside-centre role against the All Blacks, no fewer than 13 members of the elite squad are struggling for fitness at present.

As usual, the weekend Premiership matches took a heavy toll. The Bath lock Steve Borthwick, one of several candidates for the captaincy, suffered a knee injury during his side's victory over Leicester. There was no word on the diagnosis front from the Recreation Ground yesterday, which was less than encouraging. Ben Kay, his chief rival for the middle-jumper position, picked up some shoulder problems in the same match, but may be fit to resume against Gloucester on Saturday.

All things being equal, the second row is a position of strength for the world champions. Indeed, it could be argued that they are better equipped in the engine room than anywhere else. But if Borthwick and Kay continue to struggle, and if Simon Shaw of Wasps fails to recover quickly from his broken finger, there could be a whiff of panic. Alex Brown, who made his Test debut against Australia in June, is definitely out of commission, having suffered a double fracture of the forearm last Saturday.

It may be that England will find themselves promoting the gifted Tom Palmer, who joined Wasps from Leeds during the summer, to elite status over the next few weeks.

Andy Robinson, the national coach, at least received some decent news from the unlikely surroundings of Imber Court, the Metropolitan Police ground in south-west London, last night. Saracens' second string took on their counterparts from Harlequins and included a certain Andy Farrell among their number.

Farrell, Rugby League's "Man of Steel", finally appeared in a Saracens shirt, 18 months after his £700,000 switch of codes. Showing no ill-effects from the knee surgery, toe injury and prolapsed disc that had thwarted his efforts to get stuck into the 15-a-side code, Farrell turned out in front of about 900 spectators.

Farrell, whose last competitive rugby was in November 2004 for Britain against Australia, played at blind-side flanker and marked his low-key debut by scoring a 25th-minute try before being replaced after 65 minutes. He left the pitch showing no ill-effects and could be on the bench for Saracens' Premiership match against Newcastle at Vicarage Road on Sunday.