Wilkinson chances of Lions tour fading fast

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The Independent Online

The Depressing saga of Jonny Wilkinson's injury-bedevilled career shows no sign of an early conclusion, but the England outside-half has at least been spared the very worst consequences of his latest brush with sporting mortality. Wilkinson underwent a scan on his stricken left knee on Tyneside yesterday, and the initial results pointed to a repeat of the second-degree calamity he suffered during a Heineken Cup match in Perpignan two months ago rather than a first-degree catastrophe necessitating reconstructive surgery.

Welcome news? Undoubtedly. But there was bad news too. If, as seems most likely, the World Cup-winning goal-kicker re-mangled his medial ligament during Newcastle's ill-fated Premiership match at Harlequins on Sunday, he will almost certainly be out of commission until mid-May. That would put paid, once and for all, to his chances of playing an active role on this summer's British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand - the one trip that might have matched the experience of November 2003, when his drop-goal against Australia earned England the Webb Ellis Trophy.

Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Newcastle, said yesterday that doctors were waiting for the swelling in the knee to die down before making a detailed comparison between the old and new injuries. "An injury is never good news," Andrew added, "but this could have been so much worse. There is some sense of relief. Jonny has shown in recent years that he has the strength of character to get over a blow such as this, and I am sure he will return stronger than ever, such is his amazing determination."

It was an upbeat response from a man well used to seeing Wilkinson at his lowest, most notably following the desperate neck injury he suffered shortly after the World Cup final - a blow that laid him low for some eight months. But as the celebrated stand-off also missed several weeks of international and Premiership rugby because of serious problems with his upper arm, and then had his comeback cut short by the events in southern France in January, it would be remarkable indeed if this latest setback did not weaken his resolve.

Had Wilkinson wrecked his anterior cruciate ligament, he could have kissed goodbye both to the remainder of this season and at least 50 per cent of the 2005-06 campaign. All things considered, though, this is grim enough. The Lions will not tour New Zealand again until 2017, so unless something extraordinary happens on the orthopaedic front, Wilkinson will never have the opportunity to undertake the greatest rugby adventure of them all. A tragedy? Hardly. Sad? Yes, and then some.

England, reduced to a Six Nations sideshow for the first time since the mid-1980s, will today name their side for the Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday. The announcement was delayed for 24 hours, quite possibly as a result of Wilkinson's injury, although it beggars belief that the world champions were even vaguely considering rushing him back after a single outing at club level. This much is certain: Martin Corry, a big success as captain against Italy, will shoulder the leadership duties again this weekend.

Wales, chasing a first Grand Slam since the days of Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett, were also preparing to reveal their hand for the climactic match with Ireland at the Millennium Stadium. The Welsh have slight doubts over the fitness of two wings, Rhys Williams and Hal Luscombe.

The French, quite brilliant in victory at Lansdowne Road last weekend, did feel able to name a squad for their final championship match in Rome, making just one change - William Servat, the hooker from Toulouse, replacing Dimitri Swarzewski after recovering from injury.

They may yet find themselves making a second. Benoît Baby, the 21-year-old Toulouse centre who performed so spectacularly in Dublin on his international debut, has been cited for butting Brian O'Driscoll at a ruck early in the second half and will answer to a disciplinary panel tomorrow. Although Baby was penalised by the referee, Tony Spreadbury of England, at the time, the independent match commissioner, Bill Dunlop of Scotland, felt the incident should be revisited.