Rob Horne's World Cup dreams are hanging by a thread after it was revealed the Australia and Waratahs centre could be sidelined until June following elbow surgery.
The 21-year-old played six Tests for the Wallabies this year after making his long-awaited international debut against Fiji, but a season-ending injury to his right elbow suffered against New Zealand in July left his immediate Test future in doubt.
Horne, who has been plagued by hamstring and groin injuries since bursting on to the Super rugby scene as an 18-year-old, completed the Waratahs' first official pre-season fitness session on Monday under the guidance of former Olympic sprinter Matt Shirvington.
But although he moved freely throughout the gruelling workout, Waratahs coach Chris Hickey confirmed Horne may be forced to watch the bulk of the 2011 Super Rugby season from the sidelines.
"It was a fairly serious injury and unusual surgery that needed to be done," Hickey said. "The medical advice is that he could be right by February but it could take until June. It's one of those things that we're not really going to know until February."
If Horne is sidelined until June, his hopes of forcing his way into Robbie Deans' 30-man World Cup squad will be slim at best.
A June return would leave him only a handful of provincial games to press his claims for the four-match Tri Nations campaign beginning in July.
And with Brumbies utility Adam Ashley-Cooper having excelled in the number 13 jersey since taking over, Horne would likely have to rely on injury to reclaim his starting spot if selected in the Wallabies squad.
In other injury news, Hickey expects the bulk of his Waratahs squad, including Wallabies duo Wycliff Palu (knee) and Tatafu Polota-Nau (ankle), to be available for the opening round of the competition.
Skipper Phil Waugh (knee) is also expected to resume training in the coming weeks, while veteran prop Al Baxter (neck) trained with the squad on Monday having been cleared by his specialist last month.