Statistically speaking, Newcastle are the form team in English rugby, having won seven of their last eight Premiership games – a better record than Leicester, Harlequins or any other of the strong-finishing teams – and risen from the darkest depths of the table at speeds that might yet leave them suffering from the bends. All without Jonny Wilkinson. And while the Tynesiders expect Wilkinson to be fit for the European Challenge Cup quarter-final at Saracens a week on Sunday, there is no guarantee they will pick him.
Wilkinson suffered a dislocated kneecap at Gloucester six months ago and has not been seen since. During his absence, the long-serving centre-cum-wing Tom May has made a wonderful fist of filling in at No 10, to the extent that he is now widely considered the most effective outside-half in the Premiership, Danny Cipriani or no Danny Cipriani.
Yesterday it was confirmed that Newcastle had added Wilkinson to their squad for the knock-out stage – a sensible move, for the World Cup-winning goal-kicker is not a million miles away from the latest of his many career resumptions. Indeed, there are those who hope he will play some part in this weekend's Premiership match at Wasps, not least because it would put him eyeball to eyeball with Cipriani in a fascinating battle of the Lions' better-late-than-never candidates.
But May is the man in possession, which is nine-tenths of the law in rugby as it is in every other walk of life, and he will take a good deal of shifting. If Wilkinson fails to get a start over the next two weekends, his chances of making the Lions cut will be next to zero. Newcastle will have only one more fixture, a home Premiership meeting with Bath, before the selectors name their squad for South Africa on 21 April.
In the elite Heineken Cup, all eight quarter-finalists have bolstered their squads. The most notable call-ups are at Bath, where the talented midfielder Ryan Davis joins the mix after a long spell of career-threatening injury hassle; at Harlequins, who have added the wing Seb Stegmann to their options; and at Leicester, where the one-time All Black Test forward Craig Newby appears among the back-rowers.
Meanwhile, the Springbok hordes are beginning to make some confident noises ahead of the Lions Test series – a well-worn tactic designed to weaken the tourists' spirit as departure day looms on the horizon. Yesterday, the great South African goal-kicker Naas Botha, whose impact on the 1980 series was far from minimal, offered his thoughts on the forthcoming contest and, unsurprisingly, gave the Lions next to no chance.
"I'll be surprised if we don't walk away as winners," said the siege-gun marksman from Northern Transvaal. "Unfortunately for the Lions, South Africa are in good shape. The outstanding players in the Super 14 are ours, and that's a good omen. We're playing a faster game. Physically, the guys are in unbelievable condition."
Botha added that forwards as respected as John Smit and Victor Matfield had abandoned high-paying careers in Europe purely to have a crack at the tourists. "Many players don't get a Lions series on their cv," he said. "It's why they're hanging around at home. They want to make this a big one."Reuse content