Patience pays as Wilkinson returns for Newcastle

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The Independent Online

After a winter of discontent which saw England outplayed in the Six Nations followed by an even more miserable summer in New Zealand and Australia where they lost all three matches, England were yesterday given cause for a quiet cheer.

Jonny Wilkinson is expected to be back in action at the start of Newcastle Falcons' pre-season programme. The England fly-half last played back in December when he lasted 58 minutes against Northampton before being forced off the field after a tackle by the Saints wing John Clarke aggravated the neck and shoulder injury that has hampered Wilkinson for some time.

After undergoing an operation in February to repair a nerve located between his spine and his shoulder, the 25-year-old Wilkinson has followed a cautious rehabilitation programme.

The patience seems to have paid off because it seems certain that Wilkinson, who has scored a record 817 points in his 52 appearances for England as well as a further 36 in three Tests for the Lions, will turn out in Falcons' first match of a two-game tour of Ireland against the Parker Pen Challenge Cup finalists Connacht on 17 August.

Steve Black, the Falcons' fitness and conditioning coach, said of Wilkinson's recovery: "It is going really well. He is taking some contact in training. He's like a new signing for us."

Provided he comes through that demanding encounter against Connacht, Wilkinson could play in the next game against Munster at Limerick, or, as was intended some time ago, he will turn out in the home fixture and final warm-up game against Pertemps Bees, formerly known as Birmingham-Solihull, on 28 August. This game is at Kingston Park and Wilkinson's presence in the team would virtually guarantee a sell-out.

The back-row forward Zak Feaunati has signed a new contract to stay at Bath until 2006.

New Zealand have made three changes to their pack for Saturday's Tri-Nations match against Australia in Sydney. The flanker Jono Gibbes returns from injury to the blind-side flank in the place of Jerry Collins. Ali Williams replaces Simon Maling at lock and Carl Hayman returns at tight-head prop.