Rugby in the dock as Jonny feels pain again

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The Independent Online

The Question is getting increasingly brutal. Is it carelessly inflicted burn-out, metal fatigue, or just a series of freakish injuries bedevilling England's favourite sportsman? Perhaps it is time for an authoritative answer.

Unthinkable as it may have been less than a year and a half ago when Jonny Wilkinson was the pride of the nation, when otherwise perfectly respectable young ladies poured into the West End of London shamelessly waving banners proclaiming their willingness to bear his children, it is hard not to fear now that the high ground of the hero is in danger of being replaced by the knacker's yard. Or that in the coming years Wilkinson, the embodiment of a once triumphantly world-beating England, will not lack for company.

If this does prove to be the case - and after allowing that any such speculation on the demise of a 25-year-old sportsman of such staggering commitment is inevitably shocking - the roll call of regret will be long indeed.

There is no doubt about the occupant of the top of the list, however. It is surely rugby union, a sport which for some considerable time has proved itself more eager to embrace the rewards of professionalism than some of its more threatening implications.

That may be a harsh verdict but it is also inevitable in that the desperate sight of Wilkinson yet again being helped from the field came just a few days after his England coach Andy Robinson was incandescent with rage about the lack of breathing space granted to the men who played against Italy last weekend.

After the storm stirred by his criticisms of the referee Jonathan Kaplan, Robinson was necessarily circumspect in his approach to the club-and-country issue, but mind-reading is not much of a requirement in guessing what he might have said in other circumstances. He might have said that sooner or later English rugby has to look up from the trough and get some idea of what it is doing to its leading players, how somewhere along the line the profits of the parish pump have to be balanced against the lifeblood of the game. This is formed by the élite players who, in the England coach's opinion, were being treated not as thoroughbreds but workhorses - and workhorses in danger of falling in their traces.

Wilkinson's situation has been complicated by his own ferociously competitive nature, but only to a degree.

We know that had he been standing in Tiananmen Square on that famous occasion the chances were he would not have waved a flower at the army tank. He would have given it a shuddering hit. Wilkinson became a legend for his kicking, but no less phenomenal has been his willingness to crash-tackle bigger, heavier, wider men. In the Telstra Stadium in Sydney, before dropping the goal that won the World Cup, he gave and took some shots that you fancied might have been heard in Alice Springs. The miracle was not so much that he landed that lazily spiralling, winged-duck kick but that he happened to be still on his feet.

There is no surprise, certainly, in that his latest mishap came not against some high-stepping, sweet-moving opposition half-back but the Harlequins prop Ceri Jones. So there he was, trailing away from the Stoop Memorial Ground with an ice-pack on his left knee and his arms around a pair of Newcastle club officials.

Yesterday there was another scan, another bout of breast-beating. Did Wilkinson come back to the rugged treadmill of rugby and the dangers imposed by his own instincts too quickly? Did he, for his own good, need to be told to heal more thoroughly, and that targets set by both himself and the game - an England comeback, the leadership of the Lions, the renewal of his vital role for his club - should be firmly pushed to one side?

Maybe it is also true that such reflections need to run deeper. Rugby has always been a physically demanding and highly combative game, but the evidence of Wilkinson's career alone is that in the last few years it has become immeasurably harder and faster, and inevitably, more ruthless at the highest level.

But then what can you do? You cannot compel a Jonny Wilkinson to be less brave. You cannot legislate a reduction in power and pace; you cannot turn back the march of the genes. Perhaps all you can do is understand better that the best of your talent is not an endlessly renewable resource. In a technical and creative sense, the great Wilko has been a somewhat overrated rugby player, and this was something we saw in the unhealthy pressure applied to his replacement and contender, Charlie Hodgson, when England's results began to go wrong.

But no one could ever question the meaning of his presence, his legendary kicking, his courage and his wonderful dedication.

England, and all of rugby, needed Wilkinson as an expression of some of the best of itself. That his career is now imperilled, and that some believe that too much has been asked of him and the most prominent of his fellow players, is at the very least a cry for a little more care.

Becoming professional, after all, involved rather more than merely counting the cash.