Hodgson in frame for Six Nations call as England injury list grows

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The Independent Online

Clive Woodward is in just about the perfect location to contemplate the orthopaedic break-up - or rather, breakdown - of his blue-chip World Cup-winning team: halfway up a mountain somewhere in the Swiss Alps, where fractured limbs are two a penny and mangled ligaments go with the territory.

But if the England coach craved some peace and quiet following the nerve-shredding theatre of the Australian campaign and the over-staged excess of its aftermath, he is bang out of luck. New problems are landing in his lap by the day.

Mike Tindall, one of the star turns during the autumn, is seriously hors de combat after wrecking his right ankle during Bath's victory at Saracens on Saturday and has no chance of featuring in the forthcoming Six Nations' Championship.

Jonny Wilkinson, who is more threatened by persistent shoulder problems than anyone is willing to admit, may or may not make the start of the tournament after failing to go the distance for Newcastle on Sunday. Suddenly, there is very little left of England's optimum midfield combination.

And that is not the half of it. One of Wilkinson's natural fill-ins, the long-serving Bath outside-half Mike Catt, is paying the price of a concentrated conditioning regime designed specifically to get him to, and through, the World Cup.

Catt's supposed hamstring injury has more to do with a chronic back complaint inflamed by his autumnal efforts, and his club coaches do not expect to see him play until the middle of next month at the earliest. Charlie Hodgson of Sale, hardly the proud owner of an unblemished fitness record, is likely to be in Woodward's thoughts already.

Tindall, one of the few specialist outside-centres of Test quality available to England, will take even more replacing than Wilkinson, especially if the versatile Catt fails to show before the end of January.

Stuart Abbott, the third specialist centre in Australia behind Tindall and Will Greenwood, might have fancied his chances of a start against Italy in Rome on 15 February, but for the ligament damage he suffered during the World Cup celebration match at Twickenham 10 days ago - a fixture that seemed more trouble than it was worth at the time, and is now coming home to roost in the shape of an elephant-sized pigeon. Ollie Smith of Leicester, a youngster with little more than two hours of international experience behind him, is firmly in the frame.

There are major issues in the front row, too. Dorian West, the Leicester hooker who understudied Steve Thompson during the World Cup, is recovering from knee surgery and will not make the Six Nations cut - a fate that may also befall Mark Regan of Leeds, who is still incapacitated by a foot injury.

The situation is every bit as bleak at tighthead, where Phil Vickery's rib bandages and Julian White's crutches sum up the situation. As for Matt Stevens, the newcomer from Bath who may be the most exciting prop to emerge since Vickery left Cornwall for the slightly brighter lights of Gloucester in the mid-1990s... well, he has a shoulder problem, suffered during that benighted game at Twickenham.

In all, 12 members of the World Cup squad missed the weekend Premiership programme, and another two, namely Messrs Tindall and Wilkinson, ended up wishing they had stayed away. Right now, Woodward would find it easier to ski uphill than pick a team to defend England's honour against John Kirwan's increasingly competitive Italians.

With Jonny-mania still rampant, much of yesterday's concern was focused on the Newcastle medical room. Wilkinson has been plagued by a weakness in the shoulder-lower neck area for more than three years now - every time he mistimes one of his trademark front-on tackles, as he did after 53 minutes of the Falcons' narrow victory over Northampton, he suffers what he calls a "stinger" and requires intensive treatment.

An X-ray on Sunday night revealed soft-tissue damage rather than a new fracture of the kind diagnosed after the World Cup, but his director of rugby and England predecessor, Rob Andrew, could not predict the length of this latest lay-off, other than to say that his prize asset would definitely miss the home match with Harlequins on Sunday.

* The former Scotland fly-half Gregor Townsend will join South Africa's Sharks for the 2004 Super 12 season. The 30-year-old was brought in as back-up for the first-choice Butch James after the Sharks coach, Kevin Putt, had failed to find a suitable No 10 in South Africa. Townsend, who retired from Test rugby after the World Cup, represented Scotland 82 times, scoring 164 points.

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