Rugby Union: Newcastle aim to close gap on rivals

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IF BRENDAN FOSTER made a name for himself by running around the Gateshead International Stadium, Newcastle's rugby supporters have become almost as well-known for running away from it, writes Chris Hewett. The Premiership champions have finally accepted the folly of trading the claustrophobic surroundings of Kingston Park for the agoraphobia of a large arena with no-one in it and will abandon the experiment after this afternoon's set- to with Saracens, their arch-rivals from last season.

At least they will be going out with a bang. A fortnight ago it looked for all the world as though the Londoners would relieve the Falcons of their crown in double quick time, especially as Rob Andrew and company seemed intent on allowing close games to slip away. Things are nowhere near so clear cut as they were, however; two heavy defeats in nine days have erased much of the Saracen sheen and with Marius Hurter, the Springbok prop, about to descend on Tyneside to bale out the Falcons' front-row, the holders have a more confident air about them.

Jonny Wilkinson, the teenage Newcastle stand-off, is as assured as anyone, mainly because he has seen more of Saracens than any other opponents. "I made my full Premiership debut against them last March and then played them again three weeks later in front of the biggest crowd ever to attend an English league match," said the precocious 19-year-old yesterday.

"They were such close games that I lost all idea of the score; I just couldn't get over the fact that so many superstars were on the pitch. But it's different this season. I had my crash-course in top rugby with England during the summer and now that Rob has given me the responsibility of influencing results with my goal-kicking, I don't feel so isolated or exposed."

Saracens, on the other hand, will feel seriously exposed if they ship Premiership points for the third time in four matches. "Suddenly, we're not playing like title contenders," said Francois Pienaar, their coach, and if word from Southgate is to be believed, the uncompromising Springbok icon has presented his charges with a daily rendition of the riot act since their abject capitulation against Wasps.

With injuries beginning to kick in for the first time this season, a number of coaches have decided to play their selection cards so close to their chests that they are hidden inside their tracksuit tops. Bath, who must carry all manner of psychological baggage to London Scottish following last January's ear-biting scandal, were concealing their line- up until the last possible moment, as were Wasps in advance of their big London derby with Harlequins at Loftus Road tomorrow.

Quins, however, were more than happy to reveal all. Garrick Morgan, their Wallaby lock, resumes his boilerhouse partnership with Gareth Llewellyn after missing last weekend's victory over West Hartlepool while David Officer returns to midfield for Johnny Ngauamo.

On the international front, two world-class centres have confirmed their absence from these shores this winter. Tim Horan, an all-time Australian great, will miss the Wallabies' short tour of France and England because of knee trouble while shoulder trouble has cost Pieter Muller, one of the toughest hombres of the current Springbok crop, a place on South Africa's Grand Slam trip.

There were contrasting fortunes for two rugby league cross-coders yesterday. Wendell Sailor's on-off move to Leeds was still in the balance, but there was surprise news from struggling Aberavon, who have persuaded Garry Schofield, the former Great Britain captain, to turn out against Spain in today's European Shield match in El Ferol.