Wilkinson all but ruled out of Rome

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The Independent Online

England's world champion backroom staff may feature a medical doctor rather than a spin-doctor, but Sir Clive Woodward and company are not above selling the odd dummy to the public when it comes to orthopaedic bulletins. Remember the Alex King episode last September, when the Wasps outside-half was declared fit for the serious business in Australia and then ruled out of the entire tournament, all in the same afternoon? And the Matt Dawson-Kyran Bracken affair before the big game with South Africa in Perth? That was real Gilligan-Campbell stuff.

Yesterday, Woodward virtually dismissed Jonny Wilkinson, the reluctant hero whose drop goal routine against the Wallabies in Sydney guaranteed him a lifetime's unsolicited celebrity, from his calculations for the opening Six Nations match with Italy in Rome on Sunday week.

"I am assuming he won't be fit," the coach said, in a tone that suggested he was not playing games this time. "In fact, I am 99 per cent convinced he will not be in Rome." Wilkinson's problems in the neck-shoulder area means there must now be a serious doubt over his participation in the forthcoming championship.

His absence from the Italy game would wreck any prospect of an appearance against Scotland at Murrayfield six days later, and as there is no sign of him resuming club rugby with Newcastle - the England medical staff say they will have a clearer picture of the position after a thorough assessment of the injury today - Woodward may well be thinking in terms of doing without his record points-scorer for months rather than weeks.

Unfortunately for the coach, there is precious little chance of Charlie Hodgson, his second world-class stand-off, recovering from knee trouble in time to make an immediate contribution. Add to that the news from Bath, where Mike Catt's physical fragility continues to cast a shadow over his Indian summer, and the situation is grim indeed. Paul Grayson and Olly Barkley are in Woodward's squad, along with the recalled King. Two of them are likely to be in the match-day party at Stadio Flaminio on 15 February.

Catt might have made the cut had he put in a full 80 minutes in this weekend's big Premiership match at the Recreation Ground, where Wasps take on the West Countrymen. But John Connolly, the director of rugby at Bath, was adamant yesterday that Catt would not recover from his hamstring and lower-back problems in time for the game.

"Part of me feels sorry for those World Cup players who are now struggling for fitness, because they were on such a high after the tournament," Woodward said. "But there is another part of me that is excited at the thought of the side moving forward under a new captain, Lawrence Dallaglio."

Significantly, Woodward sees Dallaglio as a long-term leader. "As long as he is picked in the team, he will captain the team," the coach said. "We will be under more pressure than ever this year, so I needed someone with experience and a track record. I needed someone I could trust absolutely."