Rugby Union: King finally ready to resume his throne

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ALEX KING celebrated the latest of his many returns to fitness yesterday by gambling a few hard-earned shillings on the fruit machine situated in a corner of the Wasps clubhouse. It was a risky venture; England's forgotten outside-half has suffered such mind-blowing misfortune this season that he fully expected to hit the jackpot and then get paid in old 50p pieces.

Still, things are about to look up for the stand-off who has turned rank bad luck into an art form. King is an odds-on favourite to put months of intermittent injury frustration behind him and reclaim his place in the Wasps line-up for this weekend's Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Sale at Loftus Road. "I'll be very disappointed if I'm not picked," he admitted.

Selected on merit for England's first pre-Christmas international against Australia, King withdrew 48 hours before the match when he realised that his dodgy right knee was not up to scratch following keyhole surgery. On suffering subsequent problems during the Premiership game in January, he gave up the Five Nations as a bad job and sidestepped all rugby for two months to try to get himself sorted for the Wasps run-in.

"Basically, I got sick to the back teeth of hobbling around, so I decided to bite the bullet and take some time out," he said yesterday. "It's been difficult, incredibly frustrating, and I've hated every minute of the last couple of months. But the rest and constant physiotherapy seems to have done the trick; I've played two second-team games recently, really physical tests against the Navy and the London Irish second-string, and I'm feeling right on top of things again."

Wasps will not name their side until tomorrow but with Paul Sampson, their rookie full-back, struggling with ankle trouble, they will probably play Gareth Rees at full-back - on the narrow Loftus Road pitch, the foursquare Canadian constitutes a one-man blanket defence - and reinstate King as a crafty playmaker. Sale should also be at full strength; their worry surrounds their hooker, Steve Diamond, who has shingles, although Davis Rees, Tom Beim and Jos Baxendell are nursing niggles.

London's other band of knock-out hopefuls, Saracens, must first negotiate tonight's huge Premiership rumble at Newcastle before worrying about in-form Northampton at Franklins Gardens in the pick of Saturday's semis. This evening's combatants appeared to have the winning of the title between them until simultaneous recent slip-ups at Richmond and Gloucester gave Bath an unexpected foot in the door. Nevertheless, the head-to-head at Kingston Park remains the most important Allied Dunbar match of the campaign so far.

Kyran Bracken, the England scrum-half, and Philippe Sella, the veteran French centre now in the final few weeks of a marvellously satisfying career, will both turn out for Saracens tonight. Bracken has recovered from the shoulder injury that cost him a Calcutta Cup cap on Sunday, while Sella has completed a mandatory three-week concussion lay-off. The selectorial reshuffle sees Ryan Constable move from midfield to right wing, with Matt Singer taking over from Gavin Johnson at full-back.

Newcastle were still assessing the Calcutta Cup injury fall-out yesterday, but they were able to count on Nick Popplewell's services at loose head. The respected Irish Lion has committed himself to another two seasons in the North-east but at 32, he will call time on his international career at the end of the season.

"You can't go on forever and I'm not getting any younger," he explained. Tonight's little encounter with Sarries, in which he goes eyeball to eyeball with his countryman, Paul Wallace, will put a good few years on both of them.