England must be patient with Jonny Wilkinson and not select him too soon, or 18 months of hard work could come unravelled and leave the Newcastle stand-off a mental as well as a physical wreck.
That was the stark warning from Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, after Wilkinson produced a stunning all-round performance in the Falcons' defeat at Worcester on Saturday.
Andrew insisted that England should be looking at Wilkinson returning for the autumn internationals, rather than rushing him into the two-Test series against Australia this summer.
He said: "This is not about the next two months. It is not about whether England are in a hole and they need him in the summer. It's about making sure we get this right, so that he is still playing rugby in five years' time.
"We are holding him back, because we can't really afford this to go wrong again - not just for physical reasons, but mental as well."
If Andy Robinson and his new England coaching team can contain their impatience then Andrew promises the world will see a new and improved version of the 2003 World Cup-winning stand-off.
"He has an ambition to play the next part of his career in a more liberated way. And so we want the next stage of his career to be just a little bit freer, otherwise he probably won't survive. Either physically or mentally.
"That's partly what the last 18 months has been about. It has been terribly frustrating. Hopefully, we are at the stage where that's now over and he can actually just get out and enjoy his rugby, because I think he will be a better player.
"We are trying hard for him and with him to allow that to happen, and part of that will be about how we play as a club as well."
One of the key elements of Wilkinson's long recovery has been the way that Andrew and his staff have managed to help their stand-off get on top of his obsession with kicking practice - in the past, even Christmas Day has been just another opportunity to get out on to the pitch.
"He has already admitted that he overdid it with the kicking practice," said Andrew. "He would be the first to admit that he is a reasonably obsessive character.
"We are trying to get him to do less of everything. He hardly needs to train in my opinion. He needs to 'feel-good train', tick over, feel good in the gym, train with the team, kick a few balls over, then go home.
"The guy is a world-class player. He has only been back for three lots of 40 minutes, but if you have just seen what I have seen in the last three weeks then there is no question that the guy is a class act. He is incredibly instinctive.
"And if we can get this right, if we can get people like Jamie Noon, Mathew Tait and Matt Burke on the end of what he does, then we are going to be a handful.".Reuse content