Fit-again Wilkinson gears up for latest comeback

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson, a rookie guitar player who should now be better than Eric Clapton given the number of hours he has been able to devote to practice, may make the latest of his many comebacks this weekend when Newcastle, hugely encouraged by their important Guinness Premiership victory at Leeds on Tuesday, welcome Worcester to the inhospitable surroundings of Kingston Park on New Year's Day. The England outside-half - yes, he really did turn out for his country once upon a time - has recovered from a hernia operation and will, all things being equal, be named among the replacements.

"He was pretty close for the Leeds game," said Rob Andrew, the Falcons' director of rugby. "Let's just see how we go. We will not force him, as that would be stupid, but if he is right for Sunday, he will take some part in the game." Those words should be enough to put a few hundred on the gate - public fascination with Wilkinson shows no sign of diminishing, despite the fact that he has played only four games this season and has not donned the white shirt of England since the World Cup victory in Australia 25 months ago.

Andy Robinson, the England coach, will be interested in any sign of activity on the Wilkinson front, but he is unlikely to perform too many cartwheels. Indeed, he will be more exercised by a growing problem among the world champions' back-row fraternity ahead of the Six Nations Championship, which begins with a match of considerable magnitude against Wales at Twickenham on 5 February.

Pat Sanderson, one of the big winners during the autumn internationals, has back trouble and is not expected to play for Worcester until the middle of next month at the earliest. Yesterday, it was confirmed that James Forrester, who won his second cap as a replacement against Samoa in November, is also struggling for fitness.

Gloucester played Forrester against Wasps on Boxing Day, despite his recent problems with a rib injury. The No 8 suffered more pain at High Wycombe and has now been ruled out for an unspecified amount of time, best measured in weeks rather than days. Robinson, already concerned over the potential for mass injuries as the front-line clubs prepare to engage in important Premiership and European activity, will not be best pleased, to say the least.

Nor would the 10,800 supporters who filed into Llanelli's Stradey Park yesterday to watch the Celtic League game between the Scarlets and the Ospreys which was called off at the last minute.

The supporters, some having travelled from the furthest reaches of the Scarlets' region in north Wales, were told after the scheduled kick-off time that a frozen pitch made it unsafe to start the local derby.

The ex-Wales captain Mike Hall said the late decision was a "disgrace. It's a great shame to have let it go as long as it did, the decision should have been much earlier.

"It's bad management. The Scarlets should have looked under the covers at 1pm [ahead of the 2.30pm kick-off] and made the announcement to save people travelling."

There was a split between the two sides, with the Scarlets wanting to play and the injury-ravaged Ospreys reluctant. "It's a local derby, a great occasion and a massive turn-out," said the Ospreys wing Shane Williams, who had been due to turn out as an emergency scrum-half.

"I would have loved to have played but you have to think of safety and, while 80 per cent of the pitch was perfect, the parts in shadow were hard and dangerous."

Ospreys coach Lyn Jones was more vehement, saying: "It was unsafe and I just don't understand why we were called down here."

The Scarlets coach Gareth Jenkins was not so sure: "Maybe the game could have gone on, but there were safety implications. It would have suited us to play, we were ready, there was a great crowd and we were very excited.

"The field was covered all night and morning and we couldn't have done any more, but when we took the covers off at the last minute the referee decided there were unplayable patches."

The difficult decision was left to match official Nigel Owens, but he was confident he had taken the right option. "It was a simple choice, the players' safety is paramount and I have no doubt that there were unsafe patches," Owens said. "It would have been foolish to start."