Crisis at Newcastle: Bates faces daunting task of finding a new Jonny, Toby, Jamie...

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The positions of Jonny Wilkinson and his fellow England backs at Newcastle will be under review for the rest of the season as the club seek to remedy what the chairman, Dave Thompson, has called almost a decade of "mediocre to poor" performances in the Premiership.

The regular unavailability of Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait on international duty has been identified by Steve Bates, Newcastle's interim director of rugby, as "a specific problem" which needs solving. "We can do that by changing the emphasis in our team, that's what I am experimenting with," said Bates. "Not picking all four of them may be part of it, it may not be. It's selection, different positions, gameplan: a bit of all of that."

Thompson became chairman in February 1999, since when Newcastle have finished no higher than sixth in the Premiership. He parted company with the club's fitness advisor, Steve Black, last December and sacked coaches John Fletcher and Peter Walton 12 days ago, citing wrong "chemistry" with the players,meaning it had all got too cosy.

Black no longer attends games, but he told The Independent on Sunday he continues to mentor Wilkinson "almost day by day" and they are collaborating on a book. "It's putting down the development of our philosophy as it has evolved during our time together. It may be published but it's just for us right now."

With or without Wilkinson, Newcastle have not won enough matches; the loss of the full-back Matt Burke with ruptured knee ligaments last October was a huge blow, and Bates could not confirm when the "truly world-class" ex-Wallaby would return. Tait has a contract for one year, Wilkinson and Flood two and Noon three; the All Black prop Carl Hayman is earning a reported £250,000-plus a year.

According to the commercial manager, Mick Hogan, the club's wage bill is the fifth highest in the Premiership, but they stand 10th in the table after Friday's defeat at bottom club Leeds and their best bet for Heineken Cup qualification is winning the European Challenge Cup. "We feel the distribution of the money in the squad is appropriate," said Bates, who also worked at Newcastle before, under Rob Andrew. "We may have fewer player numbers as a result of that but I don't think the quality suffers."

The great British taxpayer gained an interest when Newcastle sold their Kingston Park grounds to sponsors Northern Rock for less than £15m last August, a few months before the bank came under public ownership. It cleared a debt and saves Newcastle more than £1m a year in interest. Their latest accounts reportedly detail an outstanding loan of £3.6m from Thompson, who made his money in IT. "Our sponsorship deal with Northern Rock has another two seasons to run," said Thompson. "We have a 10-year lease for Kingston Park on fantastic terms."

Newcastle's fans have made the predicament personal: Thompson's son Matt, a first-team hooker, was booed during the woeful home defeat by Bristol last weekend. "The booing was not on, but really our expectations haven't been fulfilled," said Martin Peagam, the chair of the supporters club. "It's got so you flip a coin before the game and get the result. Hayman and Mark Sorenson have been good imports and Ben Woods and Phil Dowson give us a good basis in the back row. But you have to wonder what's been going on." Thompson is due to meet the supporters club tomorrow week.

Bates dismissed the idea of Wilkinson doing more coaching but admitted if England chose not to select the fly-half it would have "a major impact" on Newcastle's fortunes. The clubs' Elite Player Squad agreement with the RFU starting in July will take England players away for a dozen matches next season.

"We have four talented internationals who all play in the same area, so have we got the tactics right?" asked Bates, predicting only "a little" further recruitment to add to Bath centre Spencer Davey. If Bates gets results he could stay long term and would relinquish his England Saxons role but Thompson warned: "I know which coaches are available if this doesn't work."