Wilkinson set to miss All Blacks clash but avoids surgeon's knife

England likely to be without fly-half and captain Moody must prove match fitness
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The Independent Online

A relieved England management spent yesterday celebrating the fact that the latest of Jonny Wilkinson's many orthopaedic calamities will not require surgical intervention – a clear indication that initially, there had been serious fears that another operation was on the cards. But the World Cup-winning outside-half remains on the casualty list after complaining of a sore shoulder, and as Wilkinson's shoulder issues tend to involve the ravaged nerves in his neck, there seems little prospect of him recovering in time to face New Zealand in nine days' time.

"He's seen the specialist; now he's doing his rehab," said Martin Johnson, the red-rose manager, as preparations for the autumn internationals continued apace at the team base in Surrey. "Our job now is to work out what it all means in terms of him playing some rugby. It's not as clear-cut as all that, although it would have been perfectly clear-cut had we been playing New Zealand this weekend rather than next." That is to say, his chances of participating would have been zero.

Even though the selectors increasingly regard Wilkinson as a "pine-shining" bench option – Toby Flood is far and away their preferred choice as a starter in the No 10 position – the Great Horizontalist still means a lot to them, and if things pan out as expected, his absence from Twickenham on All Black day will be keenly felt. His ability to play territory, make his tackles, kick penalties from the back end of beyond and drop a goal off either foot remains a potent weapon, especially when it comes to closing out a game at the last knockings. If the medics can somehow find a way of getting him ready, Johnson will throw a party.

Which brings us to Lewis Moody, the incumbent captain, who left camp yesterday to prepare for Bath's league trip to Harlequins on Sunday. "He needs to play," explained Johnson, conscious of the fact that his old Leicester clubmate has not set foot on a pitch since suffering a gruesome eye injury during a Premiership match at the Recreation Ground last month. "Part of his getting ready to face the All Blacks is having a match this weekend. Toby Flood has also missed matches, but we're not releasing him because we think he's done enough. Lewis is different."

Moody suffered a bruised retina when he ran smack into the Gloucester full-back Charlie Sharples while attempting a chargedown in open field. He lost all sight in the eye for 24 hours – the doctor who refused to let him stay on the field and "run it off" did him an enormous favour – and has been left with scarring at the back of the eyeball. It is possible he will suffer blurred vision for the rest of his life. Has his appetite for the game diminished as a result of this trauma? Daft question.

"I really, genuinely hope they won't take the chargedown responsibilities away from me," he said before embarking on his trip west. "It's a part of the game I enjoy. Of course, it was a bit nerve-wracking at the time and my vision is still a little distorted – something that could prove permanent. But as a professional sportsman, you're hard-wired to think you'll recover from any injury: your brain tells you to ignore it. I really want to play this weekend. I don't want to go in against the All Blacks having not had a game."

If Moody survives 80 minutes of rough and tumble at the Stoop – or even 60 minutes, and then beats a retreat to the safety of the bench – he should retain the captaincy. There are other candidates: Nick Easter, the strikingly self-confident Harlequins No 8, is the most obvious, while Mike Tindall, one of a fast-dwindling group of survivors from the 2003 World Cup final, has been stoking the fires at Gloucester. There have also been quiet mentions of Tom Croft, the brilliant Leicester flanker. Croft has the advantage of being a stone-cold pick with a future stretching all the way to next year's World Cup. All things being equal, though, Moody's gung-ho enthusiasm should carry the vote.

Changes from the side that won a peculiarly lop-sided Test against Australia in Sydney last time out will be kept to a bare minimum; indeed, Johnson has reached the point where tinkering for tinkering's sake can no longer be countenanced. "There won't be any knee-jerk reactions this close to a World Cup," he said. "I'm not going to start dropping people or sacking people because of one performance. We're happy with the squad we have."

Does that mean he will settle for a 50 per cent return from next month's four-match programme, in line with the target set by John Steele, the new chief executive of the Rugby Football Union? Not quite. "I can't sit here talking about being happy with two wins out of four," the manager responded. "We'll go into each of these games as though it's the most important game on earth, and we'll see where we are at the end of November. I certainly think we'll be a better side for having played against the All Blacks."

If Johnson believes the world's best team are beatable – "There are ways of attacking them, definitely" – he is not shouting it from the rooftops, a la Clive Woodward. "They don't lose many, do they?" he said. "You could probably fit every British or Irish player who has ever beaten the All Blacks in a Test match into this room. Any victory over them is a big notch on your... wherever it is you put your notches.

"Less than a year before the '03 World Cup, I was part of a very experienced England team who played New Zealand at Twickenham. From memory, they didn't bring all their first-choice forwards, and we had real expectations of winning. We beat them by a point" – three points, actually – "and needed to nick a line-out at the end to do it. That's the nature of games against these people.

"This England side is not as far along the road as that one was, but we are on the road that leads to the World Cup next year. You can play well against the New Zealanders and not get the result. The important thing will be not hearing people in the dressing room afterwards saying, 'I wish we'd done this' and 'if only we'd tried that'. I want us to take our shots."

And then, he tipped half a mug of coffee down his very smart sponsored sweatshirt. Read into that what you will.

Autumn internationals

Saturday 6 November England v New Zealand; Wales v Australia; Ireland v South Africa

Saturday 13 November Italy v Argentina; England v Australia; Ireland v Samoa; Wales v South Africa; Scotland v New Zealand

Friday 19 November Wales v Fiji

Saturday 20 November Italy v Australia; England v Samoa; Scotland v South Africa; Ireland v New Zealand; France v Argentina

Saturday 27 November Italy v Fiji; England v South Africa; Scotland v Samoa; Wales v New Zealand; France v Australia

Sunday 28 November Ireland v Argentina

Saturday 4 December Barbarians v South Africa