Falcons and Tigers hunt the world over

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Only four clubs have won England's top division since leagues began in 1987, and two of them, Newcastle and Leic-ester, meet today, making it abundantly clear that their mutual residence in mid-table is not a manor they wish to become accustomed to.

The Falcons recently dispatched Jonny Wilkinson to New Zealand, where their injured prize asset swapped goal-kicking for kick-starting player recruitment. The Tigers have also gone global, with their chief executive, Peter Wheeler, attempting to put aside internal squabbling and seek out fresh talent in addition to a head coach to fill the vacancy left in February by Dean Richards. If you want to get ahead, get on a plane.

Wilkinson is two months into his recuperation from an operation to widen a cavity through which a nerve passes from the spinal column. The fly-half will miss the Powergen Cup final against Sale on Saturday week, and probably England's June tour to Australia and New Zealand.

But a claim on BBC television last week that Wilkinson would be out for the rest of the year was discounted by his father and adviser, Phil. "I don't know who they've been talking to," Wilkinson Snr said. "Jonny is progressing well and the truth is that there is no timescale; when he's ready, he'll play.

"I wouldn't have thought he'll make the Powergen final, but the medical team will state when he's able to play. He is doing his rehab, and waiting for the nerves to kick in."

Wilkinson's absence will hit ticket sales for the Twickenham showpiece, but his drawcard status was emphasised when Newcastle sent him in tandem with Rob Andrew, the director of rugby, halfway round the world for all of two days. The itinerary included a chinwag with the exciting Fijian wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca.

The nerves at Leicester are of a different kind. The four-time Premiership champions between 1999 and 2002 are close to naming Richards's replacement, but John Wells, the caretaker head coach, refused to discuss any remotely connected topic at Thurs- day's weekly press briefing.

Wheeler travelled through South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in the space of nine days - he also took in Ireland, France and Wales - but an extra leg from Christ-church to Japan was abandoned when the Tokyo club of Jaco van der Westhuyzen refused to discuss extending the fly-half's loan. And the unpalatable news for Tigers supporters is that the club have been knocked back by their first-choice coach, and are having to settle for, at best, second on the shortlist.

Nevertheless, Wheeler is laying the ground for a big announcement. "We have a lot of forward expertise," he said, "but we are short of cutting-edge backs expertise. If we are going to get it, we want the best [coach] available. We had to find out who was available, and get their views on the game, what they want to achieve and the sort of players they want. If you're handing the whole of the rugby- playing part of the club over to someone, you need to be as sure as you can about them."

This description leaves no doubt that the appointee will be a strong character, capable of commanding some of the hardest-nosed individuals in the game. On Thursday, for instance, Wells supervised a line-out practice with sug-gestions from Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Ben Kay.

Reading the runes of Wheeler's criteria, the most "cutting edge" back play of recent times has been produced by the All Blacks under Robbie Deans - which might explain the Christchurch connection. Glen Ella guided the Wallaby backs until last year and assisted John Kirwan, who is himself out of contract with Italy in July, in the recent Six Nations. Sources suggest that touted names to be discounted include Declan Kidney of Ireland, Wales's skills coach Scott Johnson, and two ex-Tigers in Pat Howard and Joel Stransky.

Whoever gets the job must salve the wounds of Richards's departure. The captaincy reverted to Johnson from Back, and both have another year on their contracts. At some time there will be too many cooks, and it could be Back who is burned by the heat.

Unlike Johnson, who makes his 200th league appearance today, Back's international retirementwas poorly handled; his comments in a tabloid newspaper drew a curt response from Sir Clive Woodward. The pugnacious flanker appears to be in bad odour close to home, too, with suggestions he touted for Richards's job before the parting of the ways.

Wells has warned another England flanker, Lewis Moody, to be sensible with his recovery from a stress fracture of the foot, or face an end to his career.

On the positive side, Leic-ester have found some form, with back-to-back wins over Harlequins, and an automatic Heineken Cup place may yet be within their reach.

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