England's Six Nations preparations have been hit by a string of injuries but new coach Brian Ashton has received encouraging signs that Jonny Wilkinson is on track for a return to the national side.
Wilkinson took part in the first day of a two-day England training session at Twickenham on Tuesday and his club Newcastle revealed that they are hopeful the star flyhalf will be able to start Saturday's English Premiership match against Leicester.
If Wilkinson comes through that encounter unscathed -- which is a big "if" given his recent injury record -- he will be in line to return to play for England for the first time since kicking the match-winning drop goal in the 2003 World Cup final against Australia.
Wilkinson, who has been recovering from a lacerated kidney, the latest in a string of injuries that have blighted his career since the World Cup, said earlier this month that he did not expect to be ready to return to the international stage in time for the Six Nations opener against Scotland on Feb. 3.
But Newcastle's director of rugby, John Fletcher, indicated that he could be involved in top-level action this weekend.
"He did some contact stuff last week and will be back soon," Fletcher said. "He's away with England until Wednesday [yesterday] but I will keep in touch with him and we'll decide from there whether he will play against Leicester."
"He's in full training and he's been passed fit by the medics to get involved with contact and collision. In terms of physical shape he couldn't be any fitter. He just needs to play," Fletcher said.
Ashton could be tempted to rush Wilkinson into action as soon as possible as England are currently short of experience in the No. 10 shirt, Wilkinson's successor, Charlie Hodgson, having been ruled out for the season with a knee injury.
Ashton is likely to have his options reduced in other areas after a string of players dropped out of all or part of his first full-scale session with the squad.
Former skipper Jason Robinson and wings Mark Cueto and Paul Sackey are all doubtful for the Scotland match after being sent back to their clubs for treatment on neck, calf and knee injuries respectively.
Phil Vickery, who has taken over from Martin Corry as England captain following the appointment of Ashton, missed Tuesday's session with an ankle problem, as did Louis Deacon (knee) and Magnus Lund (calf).
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