England won the World Cup without Jonny Wilkinson playing anywhere near his best rugby. Now, they face the prospect of defending their Six Nations Championship title - and the Grand Slam they won in Dublin on a golden afternoon last March - without their record-breaking outside-half playing at all. Wilkinson will undergo surgery on Wednesday to correct a serious weakness affecting the area between his neck and his right shoulder, and faces a recovery period of at least two months.
The Six Nations begins next weekend, with England playing Italy in Rome in the Sunday fixture. Sir Clive Woodward, the national coach, had already dismissed Wilkinson's chances of playing in the match and had pretty much written him out of his plans up to and including the game with Ireland at Twickenham on 6 March. But he had hoped to have his goalkicking specialist at his disposal for the latter stages of the tournament, during which England host Wales before travelling to Paris for what many expect to be a climactic meeting with the French.
That is now a no-chance scenario, as the England back-room staff would put it. Wilkinson, who has been suffering from nerve problems and seizures in the neck area for the last three years, will not play until mid-April at the earliest, long after the conclusion of the European international season, and may well find himself abandoning the entire second half of the season.
When Newcastle's 24-year-old captain dropped his World Cup-winning goal in Sydney on 22 November, few imagined that this might be his last significant act of the campaign. But he failed to go the distance in a Premiership game with Northampton shortly after Christmas - in fact, he lasted only 55 minutes before collapsing in a heap after making one of his trademark full-frontal tackles - and has not even threatened to play since.
A couple of weeks back, he reluctantly acknowledged that his injury was a genuine cause for concern, rather than a temporary irritant. "My symptoms are more severe and longer-lasting than previously thought," he admitted. "I have not set a date for my return. 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."
Yesterday, he consulted a specialist in the hope that progress would be identified. Sadly, he was given news he did not want to hear. The specialist recommended an operation - previously, Wilkinson has recovered from his "stingers" through a mix of intensive physiotherapy and complete rest - and the player agreed to go under the knife at the first available opportunity.
Woodward will miss his vice-captain and principal source of points, not least because he has other problems in the midfield area. Charlie Hodgson, Wilkinson's natural replacement, suffered another bout of knee trouble during a Heineken Cup match between Sale and Leinster last month, and is unlikely to be even vaguely fit before next month. Two specialist centres, Mike Tindall of Bath and Stuart Abbott of Wasps, are incapacitated and will miss the first fortnight of the Six Nations, at the very least.
Three players - Paul Grayson of Northampton, Alex King of Wasps and Olly Barkley of Bath - are chasing Wilkinson's shirt. Of these, Grayson is the most experienced, having accumulated 29 caps and more than 350 points since his debut against Samoa more than eight years ago. King is the least predictable; brilliant on his day but occasionally fragile, he has struggled to convince Woodward of his big-match temperament. Barkley, meanwhile, is more like Wilkinson than the others - cool-headed, technically sound, defensively secure and a dead-eye marksman.
It remains to be seen whether Wilkinson has shown the best of himself. First capped as a teenager in 1998, he had been the talk of England's coaching fraternity for some years prior to his entry into professional rugby, and was widely considered to be good for at least four World Cups. But the injuries came thick, fast and early. The after-shocks of his heavy tackling were far too frequent for comfort - during a European Shield semi-final between Newcastle and Harlequins in 2001, he lay motionless for several minutes after one particularly bad knock - and there are many who fear his day will be done well before the next global tournament in France in 2007.
There can be no doubt that Wilkinson possesses a survivor's soul; the most single-minded of players, he will see this setback as one more summit to be scaled. But concern for his long-term health is not merely the preserve of rugby's natural pessimists. His friends and advisors are worried, too.
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