Wilkinson's injury leaves England looking for options

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson's so-called "dead arm" is not directly linked to his neck, which will come as a blessed relief to the British Association of Clinical Anatomists as well as to Newcastle and England. But sportsmen of Wilkinson's physical stamp do not write off six weeks of activity without a very good reason, and there is considerable alarm in rugby circles at news of the 25-year-old World Cup-winner's latest injury hassle - not least over its potential affect on his morale.

Jonny Wilkinson's so-called "dead arm" is not directly linked to his neck, which will come as a blessed relief to the British Association of Clinical Anatomists as well as to Newcastle and England. But sportsmen of Wilkinson's physical stamp do not write off six weeks of activity without a very good reason, and there is considerable alarm in rugby circles at news of the 25-year-old World Cup-winner's latest injury hassle - not least over its potential affect on his morale.

No player in the short history of professional union has given more of himself to his career or suffered more for his rumbustious art. Wilkinson played six years of international rugby with a neck condition he had lived with since the age of 14, when he first experienced the "stinger" sensation that would repeatedly leave him face down in the dirt, clutching his left shoulder. That is a long road, and he would have been less than human had he not hoped and prayed that the surgery he underwent eight months ago would give him a free run through to the next World Cup in 2007.

A handful of games into his comeback, he finds himself incapacitated once again - not to the same perilous extent, but badly enough to see his chances of captaining England in next month's three-match Twickenham Test series fade into the gloaming. "Jonny has enormous reserves of mental strength, far greater than most international players, and he'll come through this," predicted Phil Larder, England's defensive coach, yesterday. Even so, he must be feeling desolate.

Andy Robinson is none too cheerful, either. Having appointed Wilkinson as his captain in almost his first public act as England's head coach, he must now reappraise his options in light of an unforeseen setback of serious proportions. "I have no regrets about offering Jonny the captaincy when I did; he's my captain for the long haul," Robinson said. "I'm disappointed for him as much as anything, but at least there is a treatment process in place and he'll be given the best possible care and advice. I haven't had any formal notification that he'll be unavailable for all three autumn Tests, but if that is the case, I'll consider the captaincy and outside-half issues over the next few days."

Charlie Hodgson, of Sale, and Bath's Olly Barkley are the candidates to perform Wilkinson's positional role; indeed, both may feature when England meet Canada on 13 November. The captaincy question is more complex, although the Gloucester prop Phil Vickery might solve the problem if he recovers full match fitness by next month.

Robinson was in Cardiff for yesterday's official unveiling of a 26-strong coaching and management team for next summer's Lions tour of New Zealand. Yes, 26. When Bob Seddon's 1888 team, the first to contain players from all four home unions, travelled to Australia and New Zealand for a 35-match trip lasting nine months, there were only 22 people in the entire party. Next May, the Lions will pitch up in Auckland for an 11-game, six-and-a-half week trip with a minimum of 70. "That's inflation for you," said Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach.

Woodward confirmed that Robinson, his long-time England partner, would join Ireland's coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, and the experienced Larder in preparing the elite "Saturday side", with three more international coaches - Gareth Jenkins of Llanelli, Mike Ford of Saracens and Ireland, and the peerless Ian McGeechan of Scotland - working with the midweek dirt-trackers.

"While there are two distinct coaching teams, it is absolutely essential to stress that we are taking one group of players, all of whom will be considered for Test places on the basis of form," Woodward insisted. "One of the saddest things I've heard in rugby was after the 2001 tour of Australia, when disenchanted players said they never wanted to tour with the Lions again. I'd never heard that before, and it won't happen this time. We are not offering a soft environment, but everything will be in place for people to thrive."

Meanwhile, the Wasps hooker Trevor Leota has had his ear restored to its traditional position after a gruesome injury during a second-team match with Oxford University on Tuesday. The Samoan accidentally collided with a player's elbow and on regaining his feet, he found the ear was hanging by a single artery. Leota underwent plastic surgery and, unsurprisingly, will be out of action for a fortnight.

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