Rugby Union: Hurricanes favourites to win race for Lomu signature

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LESS THAN three weeks after the biggest transfer red herring in the short history of the professional game - Jonah Lomu for Bristol, as if - the big bloke from New Zealand was scheduled to give an impatient All Black public chapter and verse on his plans for next season at a press conference in Wellington today. By signing a new, two-year contract with his home union, the 24-year-old wing had already committed himself to Super-12 rugby in the spring. But with whom? The smart money was on a move from the Waikato Chiefs to the fast-improving Wellington Hurricanes.

Phil Kingsley-Jones, Lomu's ubiquitous agent, insisted the announcement was made in Wellington only because it was the handiest venue. However, authoritative sources in New Zealand said Lomu had agreed terms to join two other outstanding silver-ferned backs, Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga, in the capital. That would bring him under the coaching regime of Graham Mourie, probably the finest international captain of the post-war era, and Bryan Williams, the great All Black wing of the 1970s who guided Samoa through three World Cup campaigns.

It would also complete a hat-trick of sorts: Lomu has already played Super-12 for the other two north island sides, the Chiefs and the Auckland Blues. The Chiefs were the most capable of the three last season, finishing sixth in the final table, but Wellington reached the final of the National Provincial Championship for the first time in living memory and may now be the best equipped to challenge the current south island hegemony, as represented by Canterbury and Otago.

Meanwhile, the former Bath prop Kevin Yates, who surfaced in Wellington after seeing his England career comprehensively derailed by the London Scottish ear-biting scandal, should learn next week whether he will play Super-12 alongside Lomu in the new year. Yates impressed a number of good Kiwi judges during last season's NPC, and while NZRFU policy makes it difficult for foreign imports to win a Super-12 contract, the shortage of top-quality props in New Zealand could count in the West Countryman's favour.

Banned for six months for biting Simon Fenn during a Tetley's Bitter Cup game almost two years ago despite his consistent denial of any wrongdoing, Yates would walk straight into the current Bath side, whose scrummaging was exposed by Toulouse in their Heineken Cup defeat. The 1998 European champions cannot afford a slip-up against Padova at the Stadia Plebiscito this weekend.

With no Jeremy Guscott or Phil de Glanville in midfield, Bath are hoping that Mike Tindell recovers from a "dead" leg in time. There are also worries over Matt Perry, who has hamstring trouble, and Gareth Cooper, who has a damaged shoulder. Jon Callard and Jon Preston stand by to deputise.