Injured Wilkinson set to miss start of Six Nations

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The Independent Online

If Jonny Wilkinson craves anonymity as much as he says he does, he is going the right way about finding it. The England outside-half's chances of recovering from his latest shoulder problems in time for next month's launch of the Six Nations' Championship are looking more remote by the day - "My symptoms are more severe and longer-lasting than previously," he admitted yesterday - and there is now a distinct possibility of him spending the afternoon of 15 February, when the world champions take on Italy in Rome, safely inside the four walls of his house on Tyneside.

The drop-kicking superhero has an unusually developed sense of his own privacy ­ at times, he makes Greta Garbo look like Ruby Wax ­ but right now, he would probably enjoy a public appearance or two. He has not played a full game of rugby since the World Cup final against Australia, when he did something rather special in extra time, and shows no immediate signs of regaining full fitness after his single truncated appearance for Newcastle last month.

"I have not set a date for my return," he confessed. "I'm going day by day. The 'stinger' injury I suffered on this occasion was more painful and spread to more areas, and it has given me some distress down my right side. It's weak, and it is taking me some time to get my strength back."

His prospects of making the trip to Rome depend on him surviving a demanding Premiership fixture at Gloucester on 7 February. Until now, Wilkinson-watchers were confident that he had identified that game as a "must" appearance, but his comments yesterday exploded that little assumption. Indeed, Sir Clive Woodward, the England coach, may already have decided not to rush his match-winner into Test action.

Had Charlie Hodgson been a stone-cold certainty for the Italy match, Woodward could have omitted Wilkinson from his immediate thoughts and given the imaginative Sale stand-off an early chance to prove himself anew after an eight-month recuperation from knee surgery. Sadly, Hodgson hurt the same knee during his club's Heineken Cup defeat by Leinster on Sunday, and while the ligaments are still in one piece, the cartilage is far from hunky-dory.

Hodgson had the damage scanned on Monday night, and must now await the results of a follow-up check-up at the end of next week. He will not be considered for the important European match with Biarritz at Edgeley Park this weekend and is almost certainly out of the final, and possibly decisive, Heineken Cup pool game against the Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park on 31 January. Rather like Wilkinson, his early Six Nations chances revolve around an unforgiving Premiership fixture ­ in his case, a night match against Leicester on 6 February.

Woodward, who is in New Zealand for the International Rugby Board's post-World Cup summit, received more bad news yesterday. Matt Dawson, his senior scrum-half and another recent injury absentee, made a comeback of sorts by appearing for Northampton's second-string against Leicester at Franklin's Gardens on Monday, but hurt his shoulder in the closing seconds and is struggling to make the cut for Friday's big Heineken Cup trip to Agen. At least England have good cover in this area, with Kyran Bracken playing regularly for Saracens and Andy Gomarsall in blinding form for Gloucester.

Leeds, dumped out of the Heineken Cup by an increasingly authoritative Edinburgh side at the weekend, will almost certainly recall two internationals, the full-back Dan Scarbrough and the prop Gavin Kerr, for Sunday's confrontation with Toulouse ­ a thankless task if ever there was one, given that the European champions have every incentive to perform at full throttle. Kerr, one of the brighter prospects in Scottish rugby, has not played since injuring his back at the World Cup; Scarbrough, who participated in England's preparation for the tournament but missed the final cut, has been suffering from mumps for the past four weeks.

Phil Davies, Leeds' director of rugby, is also confident of naming Duncan Hodge, the former Scotland outside-half, in his squad. Hodge will compete with Tim Walsh and Gordon Ross for a place in the XXII.