Newcastle stir pot by dropping Noon for Tait

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The Independent Online

The two sides of the East Midlands rugby coin, Northampton and Leicester, square up to each other at Franklin's Gardens tonight in a match that could, if the former beat the latter, seriously complicate the end-of-term frenzy over Premiership play-off places and, by extension, qualification for next season's Heineken Cup.

Little wonder, then, that the match is a sell-out. But the most significant news yesterday emerged from the Newcastle camp ahead of Sunday's meeting with Sale - and no, it had nothing to do with Jonny Wilkinson.

Jonny-boy has indeed been named on the bench for a match the Falcons, 11th out of 12 and dropping like a stone, will certainly have to win if Leeds chisel out a result at London Irish tomorrow afternoon. Wilkinson has completed a full week's training - quite an achievement, given a run of injuries that might have bankrupted the National Health Service still further - and is now officially free of the groin problem that comprehensively wrecked his season. Good on him.

However, the selection of Mathew Tait, the star turn in England's march to the Commonwealth Games seven-a-side final last month, ahead of Jamie Noon at outside centre has all manner of ramifications, not least in respect of the world champions' summer tour of Australia.

Noon is the incumbent at Test level, but Tait is the coming man. Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Newcastle, must have been aware of the potential consequences of dropping the more experienced man to make way for his 20-year-old rival, yet chose to go ahead.

"Leaving out Jamie was a close-run thing; we could have left him at 13 and played Mathew on the wing," Andrew conceded. "But Mathew came back from the sevens looking very sharp, and while we felt he might be jet-lagged and exhausted, he's definitely in the right frame of mind to be thrown straight in."

Andy Robinson, the England coach, will be extremely interested in Tait's performance as he turns his thoughts to the difficult two-Test challenge in Wallaby country. He will be even more exercised by the current deliberations within the Rugby Football Union's "Club England" committee - the group charged with picking over the bones of a Six Nations failure and recommending improvements both to the overall structure of the England operation and the precise make-up of the coaching team.

Robinson submitted his written report on the Six Nations earlier this week. Today, the chief executive, Francis Baron, will do likewise. These documents will be considered at meetings on Tuesday and Thursday. Few firm conclusions have yet been reached, but there are indications that Brian Ashton, Bath's director of rugby, will be approached to work alongside Robinson as England's attacking strategist.

* Wales and Cardiff second-row forward Craig Quinnell has retired due to a neck injury.

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