Wilkinson injury nightmare leaves Woodward facing Lions gamble

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Jonny Wilkinson - remember him? - pitched up in Paris yesterday to report that his chances of leading Newcastle into their Heineken Cup quarter-final with Stade Français at the Parc des Princes in a little over four weeks' time were looking brighter by the day. Was he telling it straight, or merely dreaming on in the City of Dreams? He probably did not know himself. But one person who needs to know precisely what is happening in the never-ending saga of Jonny-boy's knee is his international coach. No, not Andy Robinson. We are talking Sir Clive Woodward here.

Jonny Wilkinson - remember him? - pitched up in Paris yesterday to report that his chances of leading Newcastle into their Heineken Cup quarter-final with Stade Français at the Parc des Princes in a little over four weeks' time were looking brighter by the day. Was he telling it straight, or merely dreaming on in the City of Dreams? He probably did not know himself. But one person who needs to know precisely what is happening in the never-ending saga of Jonny-boy's knee is his international coach. No, not Andy Robinson. We are talking Sir Clive Woodward here.

Woodward is scheduled to announce his 40-odd man squad for this summer's British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand on 11 April, nine days after Newcastle take on the French champions in what is likely to be their most demanding fixture of the season by a very long way.

Should Wilkinson play a full game against Stade and emerge in one piece, the good knight will enjoy a good night, happy in the knowledge that his single most valuable asset is operating somewhere near the level that will enable him to survive trial by All Black. Even though the celebrated outside-half will not have tasted a single second of Test rugby since that game of games in Sydney in November 2003, he will be included, virtually sight unseen, on the flight list for Auckland.

But there is no guarantee he will do any such thing. His recovery from the ligament injury he suffered in Newcastle's game with Perpignan on the Spanish border in January is more or less complete - he has been running for a fortnight now, and he re-embarked on his ultra-obsessive goal-kicking routines last week - but he has yet to engage in serious contact work in training.

Wilkinson thinks he may be fit for Newcastle's next Premiership match, at Harlequins on Sunday week. His director of rugby, Rob Andrew, believes the home game with Bath on 27 March is a more realistic target. If he fails to make that, he can kiss Stade Français - and, quite possibly, the Lions - a long and heartbreaking goodbye.

Wilkinson has gone from being on-message with England to being mixed-message with the world. He is not to blame - after all, he is hardly the sort to spin a yarn for the sake of it.

The chaos surrounding the timetabling of his return is the inevitable consequence of the spectacular growth in rugby interest following that World Cup-winning drop goal of his. Everyone wants a glimpse of him, if not a piece of him, and he has become 24-carat box-office as a result. Newcastle understand this better than anyone, which is why they never rule him out of action for long, whatever his physical state. The merest suggestion of his turning out at Quins will increase turnstile interest by anything up to 20 per cent.

Before the Six Nations Championship, he contradicted himself in the space of a few minutes. Having identified England's match with Ireland in Dublin as a possible target - one that he missed by some distance, given that the game happened without him last weekend - he then touched on the Lions by saying: "If I have to set my targets for four years' time, rather than for this summer, that's what I'll do."

Having missed so much rugby - he has played no more than a dozen games in 15 months - he is itching to pull on a pair of boots in anger. Sadly, he still has no clear idea of when he will be permitted to do so.

And this is Woodward's problem. Wilkinson will not play in either of England's remaining Six Nations games, against Italy and Scotland, because Andrew will not let him.

"It would be irresponsible to throw Jonny into Test rugby before he has played at club level," the former England stand-off said this week. (The fact that Martin Corry, the England No 8, played against France after six weeks of inactivity is irrelevant. Wilkinson is not a big ugly forward, and anyway, his injuries to neck and knee were, and are, far more complex).

Therefore, the Lions coach will have to back his instincts. Graham Henry did it with the half-crippled Lawrence Dallaglio in Australia in 2001, and fell flat on his posterior. History tells us that Wilkinson could play every game between 2 April and the end of May and still represent a gamble.

"I would really love to be playing for England in the Six Nations, but I have to be happy with just getting back on to the pitch," the absent hero said yesterday. "I'm just about to start training pretty much full-on, and I want to get as many games as possible under my belt before Paris.

"It's amazing how lost you feel as a professional rugby player when you can't play. I feel I still have loads to prove to my team-mates with Newcastle and England, and to prove to people who haven't seen me play for a long time. I hate standing still and I feel I haven't moved forward in playing terms since the World Cup. That has left me feeling terribly unfulfilled. It's why I'm so desperate to get back."

Woodward is desperate for him to do it, too. Unfortunately for him, he knows about as much as Wilkinson. That is to say, precious little.

BLOW BY BLOW - JONNY'S BATTERED ANATOMY

November 2003 - Receives treatment for shoulder injury during World Cup Final.

December 2003 - X-rays reveal a fractured shoulder. Suffers recurrence on return.

February 2004 - Operation to correct nerve problems in shoulder. Misses Six Nations.

August 2004 - Returns to action with Newcastle.

October 2004 - Appointed England captain. Suffers arm injury against Wasps.

November 2004 - Misses Tests against Canada, South Africa and Australia.

January 2005 - Injures left knee ligaments in Heineken Cup defeat to Perpignan.

February 2005 - Misses a second Six Nations campaign.

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