Hodgson due a lucky break in House of Pain

England on tour: Big chance beckons at last for the fly-half in Wilkinson's shadow
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The Independent Online

One of the prime tourist attractions in Auckland, where England are based until Thursday before heading down to Dunedin, is a bungee jump from the top of the Sky Tower. Charlie Hodgson could probably take the 600ft plunge to the pavement safely without a rope; he could jaywalk back and forth across the busy main thoroughfare, Queen Street, without so much as a scratch; he could take contact training with the brutes in the forward pack blindfold and avoid mishap. It is on the field of play that the Sale fly-half suffers from serial bad luck. Cross your fingers, clutch a rabbit's foot to your bosom and so on, for Hodgson could do with a change of fortune over the next three weekends.

One of the prime tourist attractions in Auckland, where England are based until Thursday before heading down to Dunedin, is a bungee jump from the top of the Sky Tower. Charlie Hodgson could probably take the 600ft plunge to the pavement safely without a rope; he could jaywalk back and forth across the busy main thoroughfare, Queen Street, without so much as a scratch; he could take contact training with the brutes in the forward pack blindfold and avoid mishap. It is on the field of play that the Sale fly-half suffers from serial bad luck. Cross your fingers, clutch a rabbit's foot to your bosom and so on, for Hodgson could do with a change of fortune over the next three weekends.

The All Blacks in two Tests, followed by the Wallabies in a third, would induce wobbly knees in many of us, but Hodgson is raring to go. And that includes his knees, which is saying something after the troubles the Yorkshire-born 23-year-old has endured in his still-short senior career. Of the latest setback, the knee strain against Leinster in January which put him out of the Six Nations' Championship, Hodgson simply smiles and says: "The timing was spot- on again, wasn't it?"

Hodgson's timing with ball in hand, and full fitness in his limbs, has rarely been in question since he signed for Sale in the summer of 2000, leaving behind a sports-science degree at Durham University to take up rugby full-time.

A consistent favourite of Sir Clive Woodward, Hodgson was on the bench against Australia at Twickenham in November 2001, three days before his 21st birthday, and won his first cap in the 134-0 rout of Romania a week later, scoring an England-record 44 points. At club level he won plaudits for orchestrating 40-point wins away to Wasps and Harlequins, and for his part in creating a flood of tries in the past couple of seasons for Steve Hanley, Mark Cueto and Jason Robinson. All the signposts pointed to a satisfying and enduring England career, if only the injuries would stop diverting Hodgson down a slip road of frustration.

Those of a nervous disposition, look away now. Hodgson broke a wrist in a final trial for England's 16 Group, and missed his cap at that level. Later, with the England Under-21s in Australia, he pulled a hamstring in the first training session, and lasted only 20 minutes of the tournament. He sat out the senior autumn internationals of 2002, when the clamour for him as a viable alternative to Jonny Wilkinson had been growing by the week, after a clear-out operation on his knee.

At the outset of the 2003 Six Nations, Hodgson was picked as an auxiliary fly-half alongside Wilkinson against France and Wales, and it seemed his time had come. In the third championship match, against Italy at Twickenham, he came on as a replacement for Wilkinson but, after five minutes, caught his studs in the turf. The anterior cruciate ligaments in Hodgson's left knee had gone - a reconstruction was needed, and an eight-month lay-off erased the World Cup from his diary. Almost as bad, he jokes, was spending four weeks last summer with Austin Healey undergoing rehab in America.

"To this day, I don't know what happened, or why," Hodgson says of the calamitous Italy injury. "There's not a lot you can do. You have to accept it straight away, otherwise you'd get into a rut and not do your rehab properly. I watched England in the World Cup more as a supporter than with a critical eye. I have decided not to think too far into the future."

A couple of days before the Leinster match in Stockport in January, he told our sister paper, The Independent: "These few weeks of Heineken Cup rugby will certainly help me get back to where I was before the injury." But there are no such certainties in sport. In the first half the left knee gave way again.

"At the time of the main operation, the cartilage had been repaired, but the repair had failed," he explained last week. "For- tunately it wasn't as long a period off as the first one. I really just concentrate on one game at a time now."

The next game is New Zealand at the ominously nicknamed House of Pain in Dunedin. If Hodgson gets Woodward's vote at No 10, it will be at the expense of Olly Barkley, who started the final two Six Nations matches, against Wales and France. Barkley has his army of supporters, but the head coach at his club, John Connolly, has not been one of them of late, and he was only on the bench for Bath in last week's Zurich Premiership final at Twickenham.

Hodgson, bright and attentive, if a little cautious in conversation, gives another smile when it is suggested he is better off out of HQ, after losing both the Powergen Cup final and the Zurich Wildcard play-off there in recent weeks. He sparkled on tour with England in the famous win over Argentina two summers ago, and would relish a few more happy awaydays.

"In the Six Nations, England's backs didn't really seem to get going," Hodgson said before heading Down Under, "but it's not for me to say what went wrong. Clive has brought in Joe Lydon as the backs coach, I suppose for his experience and expertise in attacking play, and hopefully that will create a better attacking back line.

"I haven't actually worked with Joe before, but I am looking forward to it. Obviously I am behind everyone else at the moment, so I am catching up with my homework as fast as possible."

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