Warm Tyneside welcome for Wilkinson


Newcastle may be bottom of the Premiership and facing another exhausting fight against relegation, but they are far from deflated about the prospects of two world-class players seeking to undermine their comparatively serene European campaign at Kingston Park tonight. Carl Hayman, the long-serving All Black prop, and a bloke by the name of Wilkinson are in the Toulon squad for an intriguing Amlin Challenge Cup pool game, and as both Falcons old boys are revered by rugby-loving Tynesiders – they did, after all, do more than their fair share for the club during their time in the North-east – their every move will be applauded.

Hayman is in the starting line-up while Jonny boy, still the biggest box-office draw in northern hemisphere rugby, is among the French club's replacements, having been asked to make room for the rather less celebrated outside-half Julien Dumora. Among the other former Premiership hands in the visiting line-up are the ex-Sale tight forwards Eiffion Lewis-Roberts and Dean Schofield, and the one-time Bristol flanker Joe El Abd.

Talking of Sale, their game in Agen this evening is of the must-win variety, for Brive, the other French side in a tough group, are in a commanding position at the top of the pool. Steve Diamond, the head cook and bottlewasher at Edgeley Park, has given the Russian international forward Andrei Ostrikov a debut in the second row, while the scrum-half Cillian Willis gets his second start at European level.

Meanwhile, the exceptional New Zealand coach Wayne Smith has registered his interest – not for the first time – in working with England from next summer as part of the back-room team. An influential figure behind the All Blacks at the recent World Cup, he has agreed a two-term deal with the Waikato Chiefs. Dave Rennie, head coach with the Super 15 side, confirmed yesterday that he would not hold Smith to the second half of the contract if an international opportunity arose. Smith is a high achiever, as is the South African Nick Mallett, widely considered to be the front-runner for the head coach's job. Some at Twickenham consider the two men as an England "dream team".