This is becoming a habit. Jonny Wilkinson, increasingly unable to string together more than a couple of games, faces his third significant injury lay-off in the space of 12 months after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his left knee towards the end of Newcastle's heavy Heineken Cup defeat in Perpignan on Saturday. He will certainly miss England's first two Six Nations Championship fixtures, against Wales and France next month, and may conceivably fail to appear in the tournament at all. Depressing. Very depressing.
The World Cup-winning outside-half does not require surgery, but the average recovery period for ligament damage of this nature is six weeks. England hope he will be available for the tough match with Ireland in Dublin on 27 February, but that seems optimistic in the extreme. As things stand, Charlie Hodgson of Sale can expect the prolonged run in the Test team many believe he deserves.
"I have spoken to Jonny, and clearly this is bitterly disappointing news for him," said Andy Robinson, the England coach, yesterday. "He is a very good healer, but it is difficult to anticipate how long his knee will need to heal, or when he might be back in an England shirt." Meanwhile, the Newcastle director of rugby Rob Andrew, tried to paint a positive picture by describing the injury as "common" and insisting that "it is not as bad as it could have been".
Knee ligament problems are indeed two a penny in modern-day rugby, but the effect of cumulative injuries on Wilkinson's renowned competitive spirit is less easy to assess. He has not played at Test level since the World Cup final in Sydney 14 months ago, and must now be climbing the walls. This problem comes on the back of major surgery to correct a career-threatening neck condition, which incapacitated him for eight months, and a worrying set of problems with his upper arm, which denied him the chance to captain his country in the autumn internationals at Twickenham.
Wilkinson was making only his second start since recovering from the last of those problems when he broke down 12 minutes from time. He had contributed some of his trademark piledriver tackles - a central component of his game that some feared had been lost for good - and had turned in his usual faultless goal-kicking performance. The word was that he was back on the up-escalator after more than a year of downward spiralling. This latest setback is cruel indeed.
In one sense, Robinson's selection problems have been eased. The coach was not entirely convinced that both Wilkinson and Hodgson should play against the Welsh, with one of them at inside centre. Now, he can afford not to grasp the outside-half nettle until the middle of the Six Nations. But the wider construction of the England midfield remains an issue, thanks to the injuries affecting Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall, the World Cup centres.
One candidate, Jamie Noon of Newcastle, was invalided out of the Perpignan match after a clash of heads and is suffering from concussion. Stuart Abbott, of Wasps, has not played much this season, while Leicester tend to play Ollie Smith on the wing rather than in his optimum position of outside centre. Robinson will consider all three, nevertheless, as well as Henry Paul, controversially substituted in the early stages of the defeat by Australia in November, and Mathew Tait, the 18-year-old hot-shot centre whose recent performances for Newcastle have propelled him into the debate.
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