Yachvili and Biarritz look to ruin Wilkinson's Amlin homecoming
The last time Jonny Wilkinson and Iain Balshaw appeared together on a rectangle of mud down Twickenham way, they were overshadowed by a swaggering newcomer by the name of Danny Cipriani as England put 33 points on Ireland and finished second in the 2008 Six Nations. The two red-rose oldsters will be back in town this evening for the Amlin Challenge Cup final between Biarritz and Toulon at the Stoop and while Wilkinson is being given the top-of-the-bill treatment, they could easily find themselves marginalised again.
For all Wilkinson's pulverising accuracy with the boot – he scores as heavily for Toulon as he once did for Newcastle – and Balshaw's air-cushioned raids from deep on behalf of the Basques, the key figure is likely to be Dimitri Yachvili, the Biarritz scrum-half. When Yachvili is absent, be it through injury or international commitments, Biarritz border on the hopeless. When he plays, they are as difficult to beat as any side in France. Suffice to say he is playing this evening.
Toulon are assured of a place in next season's Heineken Cup, having finished third in the Top 14. Biarritz are in the intriguing position of trying to find a way off the second-tier Challenge Cup roster by winning... the Challenge Cup. To that end, they are throwing the paintbox at this game: Yachvili is joined in the starting line-up by the majestic No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, the World Cup midfielder Damien Traille and the super-fast American wing Taku Ngwenya. Toulon are also at strength, with the Wallaby midfielder Matt Giteau alongside Wilkinson and two serious forwards, the All Black prop Carl Hayman and the Springbok No 8 Joe van Niekerk, in the pack.
Anglo-Saxon eyes will be trained on Wilkinson, 32, from the start. It was ever thus. Yet a player with a red-rose future ahead of him rather than behind him will be of equal interest. The flanker Steffon Armitage, who joined Toulon from London Irish this time last year, has proved a big hit on the Riviera. He was in the running for a place on the forthcoming England tour of South Africa and a big performance here will ensure he is discussed again ahead of this autumn's home internationals.
Leinster and Ulster spent the day preparing for tomorrow's main event: the first all-Irish Heineken Cup final, to be staged at the 82,000-seater stadium on the other side of the A316. Leinster, the holders, will start as firm favourites, but the men from Belfast quietly fancy their chances.
"We're motivated by jealousy, as much as anything else," said Ulster's Ireland wing, Andrew Trimble. "We're fed up with being labelled the third-best team in Ireland. We want to be better than Munster and better than Leinster."
Northampton have confirmed that Jim Mallinder, their director of rugby, will stay at Franklin's Gardens until 2015. Mallinder had been an early favourite to succeed Martin Johnson as England boss but ruled himself out shortly after Christmas. He will, however, be a strong contender after the next World Cup.
"Jim's signing underpins our aspirations for the future," said Leon Barwell, the Northampton chairman. "As we have seen so often in sports across the world, continuity of management is crucial in a club's long-term success. This is what Jim brings to us. You cannot overstate how important he has been to the rejuvenation of the team."
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