The outside-half position is getting to be quite an issue for Sir Clive Woodward. In the uncomfortably fraught World Cup quarter-final with Wales in Brisbane a little over 10 weeks ago, England needed two of them - Mike Catt as well as Jonny Wilkinson - just to make it through. Neither man has completed a game of rugby since the end of the tournament, and now that Charlie Hodgson of Sale has also gone lame, the coach's Six Nations' Championship cupboard is looking a little bare in terms of Test experience.
Hodgson missed the World Cup because of mangled ligaments in his left knee, and he suffered problems in the same area during Sunday's Heineken Cup match with Leinster at Edgeley Park. The damage was due to be scanned last night, with a verdict expected by tomorrow evening.
If the news is bad - and Hodgson looked thoroughly browned off with the whole business as he limped mournfully from the field in Stockport - England will find themselves deprived of a wonderfully creative spirit who had been operating at the peak of his powers.
Wilkinson had intended to return to action with Newcastle in five days' time, but as the Geordies were knocked out of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup by Montferrand at the weekend, they now have a blank fortnight. The chances of England's drop-kicking maestro testing his chronically fragile shoulder at development XV level are remote - Newcastle would look seriously daft if their principal asset did himself a further mischief playing Old Uselessonians - so he will have to prove his fitness in the Premiership match at Gloucester on 7 February if he wants to play for his country in Italy eight days later.
Catt's prospects are equally up in the air. According to John Connolly, the director of rugby at Bath, the midfielder may put his back problems behind him and declare himself available for the second leg of the club's Parker Pen quarter-final with Béziers on Saturday week. But Connolly was talking at least as much in hope as in expectation. Woodward, who is in New Zealand for the International Rugby Board's state-of-the-game summit, will not be holding his breath.
At least Paul Grayson, the 32-year-old Northampton stand-off, is playing, and playing well. So too is Alex King of Wasps, hardly the most robust of specimens but, as things stand, a whole lot fitter than Wilkinson, Hodgson or Catt. Olly Barkley, an outstanding contributor to Bath's successful run in Premiership and European rugby, is also worth a look. All three are capped players - one in his dotage, one in his prime and the other in nappies. This is where Woodward earns his money.
With the likes of the England coach and his counterparts from New Zealand and Australia, Graham Henry and Eddie Jones, attending the three-day conference in Auckland, there should be ample opportunity for the IRB to address some obvious problems: the debilitating impact of professional rugby on the South Seas unions, the blatant illegality of the dummy-running strategy employed by the Wallabies during the World Cup, the passion-killing plethora of tactical substitutions, the outrageous attempts by certain referees - step forward Paul Honiss and Andre Watson - to de-power the scrummage.
But few things happen quickly on Planet IRB. No decisions will be made at this present meeting, and although a board spokesman promised action on recommendations by April, he did not specify the April to which he was referring. It could be a long wait.
- More about:
- Jonny Wilkinson
- London Wasps
- Mark Tucker
- Newcastle Upon Tyne
- New Zealand
- Sea And Ocean