Watch out France, doctors know a way to make Jonny more deadly than ever

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The Independent Online

The bad news is that Jonny Wilkinson, England's vice-captain and superstar fly-half, will miss the entire Six Nations rugby tournament. The good news is that medical experts are predicting he will be "better than ever" when he returns after surgery on his neck.

In a blow to both Sir Clive Woodward's team selection and Wilkinson's personal army of fans, it was announced yesterday that England's record points scorer would not be fit to play for the duration of the tournament, which begins on Saturday.

He will have an operation on his vertebrae on Wednesday, and is expected to take 10 weeks to recover. England's final Six Nations game ­ a showdown with the French in Paris ­ is seven weeks away.

Last night, physiotherapy experts delivered the encouraging news that the returning Wilkinson could be even better than the old version.

Johan de Beer, a London-based physiotherapist who works with a number of top athletes, said he had no doubt that a post-op Wilkinson could recapture ­ and perhaps improve on ­ the form that inspired England to World Cup victory in November.

"When he's ready, Wilkinson will be back ­ as good or better than before," he said. "He's not going to play a different sort of game after the operation, because that's not the way he is.

"He's a very gifted and driven individual, and the type of person who will actually see this as a chance to improve. Without this problem hampering him, he has the potential to become an even better player."

Wilkinson's injury is the result of long-term damage to his neck vertebrae, caused by years of powerful tackling. Medical experts believe small pieces of bone, or osteophytes, are encroaching on the openings in his vertebrae, the foramina. As a result, the nerves passing through the foramina are being pinched, causing a loss of strength and movement, as well as considerable pain.

It will take delicate surgery to resolve but, according to another leading physiotherapist, the operation, which is performed frequently, is usually successful.

"Post-op, Wilkinson should be fine," said Matt Todman, who has treated a string of top-class rugby, football and tennis players at his Harley Street Sports and Spinal Clinic. "Of course, it all depends on how much bone they take out, or if they just decompress the joint, but after about 10 weeks, he should be able to start hitting things again. Then it'll probably take another month to build him back up to competitive level."

Mr Todman estimated that up to 10 per cent of rugby players would have to undergo a similar operation during their careers, but did sound one warning note.

"Wilkinson will have to get over the psychological hurdle of knowing he's had an operation on his neck, and that he has to go out there and get hit on it," he said.

"There is a fear-avoidance pattern afterwards, which he will need to overcome, but the England set-up is full of physios and sports psychologists to help him."

Despite Wilkinson now looking at a prolonged period on the sidelines, there has been no suggestion that his impressive marketing value will be affected.

Phil Smith, chief operating officer at First Artist Corporation, one of the UK's leading sports marketing agencies, said Wilkinson would remain a bankable asset for years to come.

"What happened in the World Cup would have superseded anything in the Six Nations anyway, such is Wilkinson's celebrity," said Mr Smith. "Injuries are part and parcel of the game. Wilkinson will come back, and when he does, they will be waiting for him with open arms."

In the meantime England is in a state of mourning. Which just leaves the question of who will operate on English rugby's most valuable neck. Mr Todman, for one, would not relish the task.

"If it was a choice between operating on the Queen's knee or Wilkinson's neck, I'd take the Queen's knee," he said. "Just imagine what would happen if something went wrong with Wilkinson's neck ..."

Heroes who felt the pain ...

Bryan Robson's shoulder

Dubbed "Captain Marvel" by then England manager Bobby Robson, there was nothing very marvellous about Bryan Robson's shoulder, the most famous of many dislocations he suffered during the 1986 World Cup.

Bert Trautmann's neck

The German former PoW passed into FA Cup legend when, in goal for Manchester City in the 1956 final against Birmingham, he played on despite breaking his neck, his heroics helping his team win 3-1.

Paul Gascoigne's knee

A notorious tackle in the 1991 FA Cup final cost him a knee injury that kept him out of the game for 16 months.

David Beckham's metatarsal

A bone in the foot that few had heard of became national news in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup when the fracture suffered by the darling of English football (above) threatened to keep him out of the tournament. He made it - just - but couldn't stop England losing in the quarter-finals.

Gary Lineker's toe

So unfashionable an injury cost the England striker dear in terms of ridicule and proved seriously debilitating during the latter stages of a career in which he reached No 2 on England's all-time scoring list.

Henry Cooper's eye

A vulnerability to cuts over the eye was the English heavyweight's fatal weakness - never more so than in his fight with the then Cassius Clay in 1963. Cooper knocked Clay down in the fourth round, but a cut eye cost him the fight in round five.

By Simon O'Hagan