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September 12, 2006 3:00 am
It would take an exceptionally hard heart - perhaps an Australian who takes last-minute drop-goals personally - not to sympathise with Jonny Wilkinson over the news that his latest injury, to the medial ligament of his right knee, will rule him out for four to eight weeks, writes Huw Richards.
That is more or less the period Rob Andrew, England's new elite rugby overlord, has given top players of limited recent achievement to make their case for inclusion in the autumn internationals - warning that achievements 18 months ago will count for nothing.
Wilkinson's absence from the colours now stretches across 26 matches and 33 months.
Frustration is compounded both by the fact that Wilkinson was properly rested over the summer, rather than rushing back into action as he did for last year's British Lions tour, and of the glimpses of undiminished quality offered on the rare occasions - as at Llanelli in the Powergen Cup last autumn - when he is fully fit.
England's worries are less at number 10 - where Charlie Hodgson has played sublimely in both matches for Sale this season - than at inside-centre where Wilkinson's calm judgment, defensive solidity and distributional skills might make him the perfect compliment to Hodgson's mercurial gifts.
It is worth remembering that other England World Cup winners, while less publicised, have suffered almost as badly with injuries. Prop Trevor Woodman has had to retire, Phil Vickery has been injured almost as often as Wilkinson, and Richard Hill has missed the last two seasons.
Nor are England the only sufferers. Wilkinson's club Newcastle struggled against relegation last season and, with Andrew departed for England, badly wanted a fit Wilkinson as insurance against renewed peril.
The irony is that Wilkinson's injury layoff was announced just as England's other highly publicised absentee, rugby league capture Andrew Farrell, was poised to make his union bow for Saracens A last night.
The worry must be that, while this injury seems minor in itself, there must be a limit to how much more Wilkinson's body, and perhaps more importantly his spirit, can take.
*FOOTBALL Having spent so long getting to the Premiership, Reading have taken to it remarkably quickly, writes Jonathan Wilson. Successive away defeats may have dented the euphoria of their opening day triumph over Middlesbrough, but Monday night’s 1-0 win over Manchester City will have raised hopes that they can not merely survive but prosper at this level.
After all, the only other two sides to be promoted to the Premiership with over 100 points, Fulham and Sunderland, both enjoyed comfortable first seasons, and there is no reason to suppose Reading will be any different. They attack intelligently with width, through the South Korean Seol Ki-Hyeon and the American Bobby Convey, and in Steve Sidwell they have a distributor as composed as any in the division.
Certainly they were comfortable last night, relatively unthreatened by an admittedly lacklustre City front-line, and always dangerous going forwards. Ivar Ingimarsson got the only goal midway through the first half, stealing in front of Sylvain Distin to reach Bobby Convey’s free-kick and then steering his header past Nicky Weaver, but the scoreline could easily have been more emphatic. Weaver made three excellent saves and Distin cleared off the line after Kevin Doyle had rounded the goalkeeper, and yet City will still feel hard done by.
After the arrival of Georgios Samaras, there was a sense of City beginning to mount a fight-back, only for Ousmane Dabo to be sent off with 10 minutes remaining for what the referee Howard Webb presumably saw as an elbow on Steve Sidwell. It certainly wasn’t: so long as players have arms they will continue to catch other players in the face, and referees really must learn to distinguish between accidental clashes and deliberate assaults.
That, though, should not detract from Reading’s victory. They were the better side, playing enterprising football, and they now revel in the extraordinary statistic that they have won 21 of their last 24 home matches.
*MORE FOOTBALL Sven-Goran Eriksson pulled out of a conference looking back at the World Cup because he was fed up with accusations of incompetence from his critics, according to Lennart Johansson, the Uefa president.
Eriksson was due to be a guest speaker at the Fifa international football symposium in Berlin at the weekend but Johansson, a Swede like Eriksson, said the former England manager had nothing to gain by coming.
Johansson said: "He has had enough. He thinks people have being saying what a shit he is and how incompetent he is, and that, just because England have won now a match, people are saying how bad he was.
"He has his money and will still try to have his pride, instead of standing here in Berlin with nobody listening to him because he failed to bring the World Cup to England." Johansson said that Eriksson had also endured too many invasions of privacy.
He added: "I don't defend him, and there are things he did he should have avoided, but I can understand that he had had enough. He has tried to adapt to the style where you hunt people all through the night but he has had enough."
*FORMULA ONE Renault chief Flavio Briatore insists his comments claiming that this season's world championship battle has been fixed in favour of Michael Schumacher were taken out of context.
Briatore could face action from the FIA, Formula One's governing body, after his claims following the Italian Grand Prix, which Schumacher won before announcing he would retire at the end of the season.
"These comments which have been attributed to me in the press today have been completely taken out of context," read a statement from Briatore.
"A jokey remark has been turned into something it was not intended to be. I have every confidence in the governance of our sport and look forward to our team fighting and winning the Formula One World Championship this season."
Briatore was angry his driver, defending champion Fernando Alonso, was dropped to 10th on the grid for Sunday's race after allegedly blocking Ferrari's Felipe Massa in qualifying.
That decision, and a ban on Renault's radical suspension system earlier this year, prompted Briatore to say on RAI television: "This is a world championship which has already been decided at the table. We have understood how things go, it has all been decided. They have decided to give the world championship to Schumacher and that is what will be." Schumacher's victory in Monza means he is only two points behind Alonso in the drivers' championship with three races left.
Meanwhile, Christian Klien has been dropped by Red Bull for the rest of the season. Test driver Robert Doornbos, a former Minardi driver, will step in in China, Japan and Brazil. Red Bull axed Klien after he turned down their offer of a Champ Car drive next season as compensation for losing his Formula One seat to Mark Webber.
*CRICKET Robert Croft has resigned as Glamorgan captain after nearly four years in the job. The former England off-spinner has called it a day two weeks before the end of the season and 48 hours after the club slipped to their 21st defeat out of 31 championship matches over the last two seasons. David Hemp will take over.
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