Wilkinson's comeback lasts just 32 minutes

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Jonny Wilkinson's latest attempt at a comeback from injury - his third since August last year - lasted all of 32 minutes yesterday, and ended in more pain and misery.

Jonny Wilkinson's latest attempt at a comeback from injury - his third since August last year - lasted all of 32 minutes yesterday, and ended in more pain and misery.

Wilkinson sustained an injury to his left knee which has effectively ended any hope of him making a belated international comeback with England against Scotland on Saturday and might even affect his chances of making this summer's British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

It all fell apart half an hour into the Zurich Premiership match between Newcastle and Harlequins when Wilkinson, who has not played for England since the 2003 World Cup final, decided to tackle the 17st 10lb Quins prop Ceri Jones, who fell awkwardly on top of the 13st 5lb Newcastle fly-half.

Two anxious minutes of intense on-field treatment, during which time Harlequins moved into the lead, ended with the stricken player being helped to his feet, off the Stoop Memorial Ground and into the temporary dug-out where he was examined for 15 minutes.

Then, sporting a large ice pack on his left knee - the same knee in which he damaged medial ligaments just nine weeks ago against Perpignan in the Heineken Cup - the 25-year-old Wilkinson was helped to the distant, temporary changing-rooms where he rested until the end of the match.

Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, refused to speculate on the gravity of the injury. "Obviously, he is pretty disappointed. It could be nothing and he could be back in two weeks' time, or he could be facing another period of rest. In Melbourne in 2001 in the second Test against the Wallabies, he was injured and it looked as if his tour was over but he was back in the team for the final Test the following week.

"We are not sure of the nature or extent of the injury but it is the same knee he injured against Perpignan. We will know more after he has had a scan [today], after which he will see a specialist, until then it is pointless to speculate.

"But he is not in any pain at the moment and it does not appear to look the same as when he injured it against Perpignan."

Originally the plan had been to bring Wilkinson on from the bench, but a late injury to the full-back Joe Shaw, who looks as if he needs surgery to an ankle injury, meant that Dave Walder, originally selected at fly-half, had to drop back to full-back, so Andrew decided that Wilkinson had to start.

Andrew revealed that Wilkinson might have played the whole match, depending on how he felt. "Fitness is not a problem with Jonny," he said. "For someone who had not played for nine weeks he looked sharp and his goalkicking was unbelievable. He had a couple of goes in contact, a couple of big hits. He looked in good nick." Sadly, after two penalties, both from more than 40 metres and one from way out on the left touchline, it all ended in misery.

It was decided by the Newcastle management not to send Wilkinson to nearby West Middlesex Hospital but to fly him back north last night with the rest of the party. "We felt it was easier to get him back to Newcastle with people who have been working with him," Andrew explained.

Wilkinson has been dogged by ill luck since the 2003 World Cup final, and injuries to both shoulders, his biceps and his left knee have resulted in him starting just 11 games for Newcastle since December 2003.

He has also missed 15 Tests for England, who have won six and lost the other nine.

Mark Evans, Harlequins' director of rugby, said: "I feel so sorry for Jonny. It's terrible. It's so sad for the lad. He loves the game. Never mind the disappointment to Falcons, England and the Lions, Jonny will be devastated."

But Evans added: "Hardly anyone retires through knee injuries these days. It's very rare. Jonny has never damaged his anterior cruciate ligament."