Pain for Jonny, anguish for Andy

The wounded hero: Talisman's endless travails in the hitting zone bring nothing but headaches for the new coach
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The Independent Online

During a flight to Mauritius, when he was recuperating from the operation to his neck, Jonny Wilkinson did not kick off his shoes and order a sundowner. He started to jot down a manifesto for the rest of his career, or what he called chapter two.

During a flight to Mauritius, when he was recuperating from the operation to his neck, Jonny Wilkinson did not kick off his shoes and order a sundowner. He started to jot down a manifesto for the rest of his career, or what he called chapter two.

In a black notebook he wrote a list of goals, including: "To come back physically stronger, more powerful and in better shape than ever before, making myself the fittest player in world rugby; to improve all my skills by a large amount and to enjoy playing the game a great deal more." Once again, the script has not gone to plan, leaving Wilkinson and England more confused than ever.

So far, Andy Robinson's experience of the Red Rose legacy handed down by Sir Clive Woodward has been the thorny end, and the latest setback to Wilkinson - he is doubtful for the autumn internationals - has turned a drama into a crisis.

When Robinson nominated Wilkinson as his captain - "the toughest competitor of the lot" - it looked like the start of a beautiful relationship. It may yet be the case, but since dropping that goal in Sydney last November the young stand-off has played fewer than a dozen matches while his medical file has grown thicker. It is unusual if he completes a game without at least some TLC from the medics and in his penultimate appearance, against Wasps, he was a suitable case for regular treatment.

Wilkinson damaged his upper right arm but nevertheless played for Newcastle against Saracens last week, dropping a goal in the dying seconds to salvage a 20-20 draw. The club was advised that the best course of action is for Wilkinson to rest for "several weeks", allowing the injury, a haematoma, to mend. He could be out for a month or more and there seems little point in risking him for next month's Twickenham internationals against Canada, South Africa and Australia.

"I have no regrets about offering Jonny the captaincy," Robinson said. "He's my captain for the long haul. I'm disappointed for him as much as anything, but at least there is a treatment process in place and he will be given the best possible care and advice."

Robinson said he was not prepared to jeopardise any player's career if they were not fit and Wilkinson would play only if the England and Newcastle medical teams were sure he was fully recovered.

Robinson has Charlie Hodgson and Olly Barkley to take over at No 10, but the problem of the captaincy is far harder to solve.

Wilkinson, it seems, needs more than shoulder pads to protect him from the wear and tear of six years of professional rugby for club and country. In his new book, My World, he said of his comeback this season: "Physically, I am way ahead of where I was. I can recover more quickly after pushing myself to the limit and every aspect of my conditioning has improved. This is going to help with my tackling. I have set myself a target of five big hits per game. The heavy collisions are the ones that can really lift a team."

They are also the ones that can shorten a player's career. If the circus came to town, Wilkinson would volunteer to be fired out of the cannon. After Zinzan Brooke experienced the Zurich Premiership with Harlequins he asked Jason Leonard: "Why is everybody trying to kick the shit out of me?" Leonard replied: "Because you're an All Black, you're Zinzan Brooke and you're on £250,000 a year." Everything goes double for Wilkinson.

A target of five big hits per game? Barry John would not have contemplated a tackle of any kind in a season if he could help it. It did not stop him from becoming a classic No 10 of the old world and he was probably seen at his best on the Lions' tour of New Zealand in 1971.

Carwyn James, the architect of that historic series - it remains the Lions' only success in the land of the long white cloud - had Dr Doug Smith as his manager and John Dawes as captain. They played 24 matches and lost one.

In Cardiff a few days ago Woodward, head coach for the Lions' tour of New Zealand next year, and Bill Beaumont, the manager, revealed a supporting cast of 26, including Robinson, Phil Larder, Dave Alred and Dave Reddin from England, Eddie O'Sullivan and Mike Ford of Ireland, Gareth Jenkins of Wales and Ian McGeechan of Scotland. One set of coaches will work with the Saturday side, another with the midweek dirt-trackers.

The tour has 11 matches over six and a half weeks and about the only person they have not recruited is Graham Henry, the New Zealander who was the controversial choice as coach of the Lions in Australia in 2001, when he was also in charge of Wales. As he is currently coaching the All Blacks, he would have had to declare a conflict of interest.

Henry was a young disciple of James and a spectator in the crowd when the Lions paved the way 33 years ago. The irony is that James was never a prophet in his own country whereas Henry was recognised as a coach by Wales, the Lions and New Zealand.

Last week Robinson said he wanted England to establish closer links with rugby league. "We want to train with a league side and I would like it to become a regular thing. It will help develop our players and they will find it challenging. I don't know whether we'll be training with a club or with the Great Britain squad."

Nothing's new. James's meticulous planning for New Zealand involved visits to Manchester United and Wigan rugby league club to study training schedules and techniques.

Meanwhile Wilkinson is left kicking his heels, which for him is a form of purgatory. "Playing for England can be stressful at times and tough to deal with," he said, "but I know now it isn't half as painful as not playing for them."

In his little black book he had already added a list of long-term goals: to win the World Cup again with England and be a major influence; to be selected for the Lions' tour to New Zealand; and to play as many games as possible for England - injury allowing.

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