England's new captain, Phil Vickery, learnt yesterday that his reign looks certain to begin without the talismanic fly-half Jonny Wilkinson.
The opening Six Nations match is against Scotland at Twickenham on 3 February and Vickery, 30, said: "If Jonny is not involved for the Scotland game, it will be disappointing. I think you have to be realistic, we all want to see Jonny playing. There is not a supporter in the country who doesn't want to see him in the team.
"But he has had a lot of setbacks and disappointments, so whatever decision is made about Jonny and when he plays for England has to be right for him. And he is a strong enough character to be able to make the right decision."
Wilkinson's prospects were being talked down by his club yesterday. The Newcastle fitness coach Steve Black, with whom Wilkinson has worked since he was 17, told the BBC: "I don't think Jonny will be ready for the Scotland game. It would be foolhardy to rush him back."
Wilkinson suffered a freak kidney injury on 3 November against Bristol, and while the 27-year-old is joining infitness and skills sessions with his team-mates, he has yet to take part in full contact sessions.
Wilkinson, who has not played for England since the 2003 World Cup final and has made only three starts for Newcastle this season, has been afflicted by injuries to his neck and shoulder, knee ligaments and now a kidney.
Black added: "I work one on one with Jonny every day and he's determined, ambitious and in great nick. He was very sore and uncomfortable following the injury, but the soreness has subsided now.
"This latest setback was a pure freak injury. A whack to the kidneys is a boxing injury. It's a part of the body that's difficult to protect and is vulnerable, even for world champion boxers.
"Jonny is fit and strong and his recovery levels are high. And he's had a lot of practice at recovering."
Vickery, who spent 11 years with Gloucester before joining Wasps last summer, has only just recovered from a back operation, his third, and so he knows what Wilkinson is going through.
"My back is 100 per cent clear of problems at the moment, but it is an ongoing condition needing treatment that will have to go on for ever."
Vickery's most recent injury was a bruised buttock but he believes that the England team needs a kick up its collective backside.
He has captained England on two previous occasions, against Argentina in 2002 and Uruguay in the triumphant 2003 World Cup, experiencing victory on each occasion, but Vickery, whose first match as substantive captain will be on his 50th England appearance is not making any wild claims.
"There is not that much wrong," he argued. "It's just a loads of things, injuries, retirements and so on. There is nothing majorly wrong. But confidence plays a big part."
So there were no bold, brash predictions about either England's Six Nations prospects or about the defence of the Rugby World Cup in France in the autumn.
The burly prop, who now plays alongside a former England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, said: "It's a huge challenge for me, but one I am looking forward to.
"I have watched England play and it has been frustrating because I am a supporter as well and I just want my team to go out and give 110 per cent to the cause And, hopefully, we will prove a few people wrong."
Vickery revealed that the first person to congratulate him on his elevation to the captaincy was Martin Corry, the man from whom he has taken over.
"He sent me a text this morning wishing me luck. I feel for Martin, he is a great bloke and we have had some good times together," Vickery said.
While Corry was included in the 33-man England Six Nations squad on Tuesday, Dallaglio, the Wasps back row forward, was excluded. Vickery added: "I would hope Cozza will be with me and the England coaching team."
The flanker Shane Jennings is to leave Leicester at the end of the season after two years with the club and is to rejoin the Irish province Leinster.
The Wales prop John Yapp has been ruled out for the rest of the season after rupturing a cruciate knee ligament. The 23-year-old loose head picked up the injury in Cardiff Blues' 29-10 defeat of Llanelli Scarlets on New Year's Day.Reuse content