The shadow at Jonny's shoulder

Six Nations 2004: Charlie Hodgson
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The Independent Online

Charlie Hodgson should be wary of standing under any mistletoe. With his luck he'd get it in the neck from a vampire. It has been a wretched year for the Sale stand-off, but if he can manage to keep body and soul together things can only get better in 2004. "It's been a nightmare,'' Hodgson said. "I wouldn't wish it on anybody.''

Last March Hodgson replaced Jonny Wilkinson, who was captaining his country for the first time, at No 10 in the 47th minute of the Six Nations match against Italy at Twickenham. In the 49th minute he sidestepped off his left foot. "I felt something go, and my first reaction was that I'd dislocated my knee. But it looked OK and with Jonny off the field I thought I might be able to carry on.''

In the 53rd minute Hodgson limped from the field, and a scan revealed that he had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. "The annoying thing is that the injury was not caused in a tackle but by my boot getting stuck in the turf,'' Hodgson said. He missed the rest of England's Six Nations Grand Slam, the June trip to New Zealand and Australia and, of course, the World Cup. He had already missed the autumn internationals with an injury to his right leg. Against Italy he not only tore the ligament but damaged a cartilage. He had an operation two weeks later, was on crutches for four weeks and was out for eight months.

"It was a massive disappointment but it's something you have to come to terms with pretty quickly. I had to work hard to come through it, and after rehabilitation I still thought I had a chance of making the World Cup, but I wasn't quite up to scratch. Clive Woodward kept in contact but there's not a lot you can say.''

So Hodgson watched the World Cup on television at home. "Just the England games. In the back of my mind there was the slight feeling that I could have been there, that I could have been part of it all. It was an amazing achievement.

"My goal is simply to play well for Sale and see what happens. I was a bit apprehensive at first but then things started to click. I've got to the stage where I was before the injury.'' Earlier this month he kicked a last-minute drop-goal to win a Heineken Cup tie for Sale against Cardiff.

With Wilkinson injured and resting on his laurels and his medals, Hodgson was recalled to the England squad for last week's match against the New Zealand Barbarians, but a slight knee injury meant a premature return to Manchester and another missed appointment at Twickenham.

He has, though, a big fan in Woodward, who gave Hodgson his debut against Romania at Twickenham in November 2001, when he scored an astonishing 43 points. A missed conversion prevented him from establishing a world record.

Injuries and Wilkinson have restricted him to eight caps, six at stand-off and two at centre, although he was particularly impressive in England's victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires in June 2002. He made his first Six Nations start at No 12 against France last February, when he and Wilkinson occasionally swapped positions. "I see myself as an out-and-out No 10,'' Hodgson said. "But if I was chosen to play for England anywhere I'd be happy. With Jonny around people may think I'm stupid, but my ambition is to become the number one No 10. It is something I have to strive for.''

It is almost sacrilegious to say so, but aside from his goal-kicking, Wilkinson was not at his best in the World Cup, and but for Mike Catt riding shotgun in the second half against Wales the stage would have been bound for Deadwood.

Having just turned 23, Hodgson is Woodward's younger friend from the north. He was spotted by James Wade, Sale's academy director, while playing for Yorkshire in a junior match against Lancashire. "I went to look at a scrum-half and then saw this youngster running the show at No 10,'' Wade said. Hodgson, who was at Durham University, played a handful of games for Sale Under-21s and within three months was in the first team.

"Nobody else showed any interest,'' Wade said. "I couldn't believe our luck. The lad's got it all.'' Not quite. He needs a date with Lady Luck to take his international career to a new phase.