Newcastle declare Wilkinson fit for Premiership fray

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson has done precious little since being smashed from one end of Buckinghamshire to the other by a rampant Wasps team five days ago. The new national captain attended England's get-together at Loughborough University earlier this week, but avoided physical contact as though it were the plague. It was a similar story on his return to club duty at Newcastle. Yet Wilkinson has been declared fit to lead the Tynesiders against Saracens at Kingston Park on Sunday - proof positive that, in the dog-eat-dog world of the Premiership, a player needs to be mummified in plaster before he qualifies for a sick note.

He will be expected to tackle his weight, too. "More than anything, I want a really steely defensive performance," Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Newcastle, said. "We haven't performed in that area in the last few weeks, and as we know we're capable of doing it - we did it at the start of the season - the players have been told in no uncertain terms that we have to up our game in that respect."

On the subject of Wilkinson, who spilled more ball in contact than anyone who witnessed his performances this time last year could ever have imagined, Andrew went out of his way to explode the theory that this was connected with the neck condition that cost the outside-half a major bout of surgery and eight months of inactivity. "Jonny has a dead arm," he said. "It takes the form of a heavy bruise on his bicep, which he picked up in his comeback game against Connacht, and is nothing to do with the injury he had before.

"A problem like this is not serious as such, but it's still very painful if you get whacked again on the same spot. That is why Jonny hasn't done contact training with us this week, even though he's done everything else, and why he didn't train fully with England. He is fit for the weekend, though, and as for his form, I think he's going really well. He's getting back into the physicality of the Premiership, but he's probably stuttered a bit in recent weeks because we've stuttered collectively."

Newcastle's fortunes have dipped alarmingly in recent weeks. After two comprehensive victories on the road, at Worcester and Bath, they struggled to see off Harlequins at home before leaking points to Gloucester, Leicester and the High Wycombe-based champions.

As a result of last weekend's five-try defeat, Andrew has made seven changes, three of them positional, for the Saracens match. Matthew Burke, the former Wallaby full-back, replaces the injured Jamie Noon at outside centre - David Walder starts in the No 15 shirt - while Mathew Tait gets a run on the right wing. Up front, there are places for James Isaacson and Ed Williamson, with Micky Ward and Colin Charvis switching to tight-head prop and No 8 respectively.