Cipriani faces off with Wilkinson for England role

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The Independent Online

Sometimes, this selection lark can be very confusing. When Newcastle face Wasps before a capacity crowd at Kingston Park tonight, Jonny Wilkinson, who some people think should be playing his Test rugby at inside centre, will confront Danny Cipriani, who rather more people believe should operating at full-back, in a much-hyped battle of England's celebrity outside-halves. Meanwhile, Sale have picked the Scotland full-back Rory Lamont on the wing for their meeting with Worcester, thereby allowing the red-rose wing Mark Cueto to perform the No 15 role he failed to master at last year's World Cup. Everyone with it so far? Excellent.

To make matters more interesting still, Mathew Tait will be the last line of defence for Newcastle tonight. At the end of last month, the best attacking outside centre in the country made such a spectacular hash of the unfamiliar full-back duties during a grisly defeat at Leicester that his chances of making the starting XV for the opening Six Nations match with Wales went "pop" with a capital "P".

It is debatable whether either Tait or Cueto relishes occupying this uniquely challenging position, especially as Brian Ashton, the England head coach, is in no obvious hurry to do away with his favourite No 15, Iain Balshaw. Still, they are where they are.

It is probably easier to see tonight's match on Tyneside for what it is, rather than attempt to read the runes in respect of next weekend's Scotland v England fixture up the road at Murrayfield. Newcastle are not exactly tripping the light fantastic in this season's Premiership, but they are rarely less than handy on home soil and, with their full complement of red rose backs present and correct, they are perfectly capable of landing a telling blow to Wasps' chances of securing a play-off place.

Yet for all that, the Wilkinson-Cipriani rivalry is one hell of a sub-plot – a contest within a contest that will go some way towards identifying the younger man's precise place in the grand scheme of things. Ashton considers him to be one of the richest talents he has seen in English rugby since he first started coaching, back in 1900-and-frozen-to-death. The 20-year-old Londoner will certainly have first shot at nailing the pivot position ahead of the 2011 World Cup – few seriously believe Wilkinson will still be troubling the international scorers in three-and-a-half years' time – but the incumbent's happy knack of banging over vital 50-metre penalties at Test level, as demonstrated in Paris last weekend, makes an immediate promotion unlikely. Cipriani will have to outplay Wilkinson by a distance tonight to force a change in the status quo.

John Fletcher, the director of rugby at Newcastle, steered well clear of the subject yesterday. Instead, he concentrated on defending his decision to run Tait at full-back. "They should take the numbers off the backs of the shirts, in my opinion, because all this stuff about pigeonholing players at inside centre, outside centre and full-back is nonsense," he said. "The way the game is played these days, people rarely line up in what you would call an orthodox pattern. When people ask me about Mat's best position, I just say he's an outside back. I don't get too emotional about the number he wears."

Agreed, but is it not equally true to say that Tait, who signed a one-year extension to his contract yesterday, has never played as badly in midfield as he did at full-back last month? "There are one or two positional things, one or two skills, that are unique to the full-back position," Fletcher acknowledged, "but Mat is working on those and it will come with time. All I want is to have my best players on the field, and he is undoubtedly one of my best players."

Sale, who have the look of major title contenders about them, will be led by the Argentine lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe at Edgeley Park, and their confidence is such that they have left some serious talent – not least the All Black midfielder Luke McAlister – on the bench. Worcester, on the other hand, must do without a New Zealand international of their own. Rico Gear, a high-class wing in any company, has a hamstring problem and will be replaced by the former Gloucester back Marcel Garvey.