Newcastle may have taken the low road to anonymity since winning the Allied Dunbar Premiership at their first attempt in 1998, but a stiletto-sharp raid on the transfer market yesterday signalled a renewed mood of optimism at Kingston Park. Liam Botham, the England A wing and son of a former Test cricketer of vague repute, will join the Falcons from Cardiff this summer after signing a three-year deal that makes him a key figure in one of the most exciting back divisions in the country.
The news came as a sickening blow to Harlequins and their new managerial regime: the under-performing Londoners, in urgent need of new talent after the mass sackings announced at the end of April, thought Botham was a "done deal" after courting him with great dedication over recent weeks. "Let's just say we've pinched him from under their noses," said a delighted Newcastle source last night.
At 22, Botham is playing the best rugby of his brief career. He is neither the most elusive wing in the world, nor an out-and-out speedster in the Dan Luger or Ben Cohen mould. But he has the natural finishing ability of a David Rees and brings considerable size and strength to the party. His performances at second-string international level this season, where he was one of the few to cut the hot stuff in a disappointing campaign, persuaded Clive Woodward, the England coach, to identify him as a surefire tourist to South Africa next month.
"It's a good signing for us for three reasons," said Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew, last night. "Liam has proved himself with Cardiff and England A; he's an ambitious young English player of the kind we're trying to develop at Kingston Park; and he wants to be in the North-east, where he considers himself to be at home. We tried to sign him when he was last in the area [Botham played his early league rugby at neighbouring West Hartlepool] but were too late. I've talked to a number of people about him, and none have had a bad word to say."
Botham's arrival should underpin Newcastle's challenge for honours next season. They already possess three of the most precocious young outside backs in the country - Tom May and Jamie Noon have plenty going for them at centre, while Michael Stephenson is widely regarded as the coming full-back - and there is rich experience in the contrasting shapes of John Leslie, the Scotland captain, and Va'aiga Tuigamala, whose long residency in England means he is no longer considered an overseas import. All Andrew needs to find now is a ball-winning forward or two.
Meanwhile, Rob Howley, the Cardiff scrum-half who lost the Welsh captaincy on the eve of this season's Six Nations' Championship and ended up out of the team altogether, is preparing to confirm his decision to cross the Severn Bridge and play his rugby in the Premiership next season. Leicester remain clear favourites for his signature, but the loss of Botham may persuade Harlequins to up the ante on the financial front.
Howley's fellow scrum-half on the Lions tour, Matt Dawson, yesterday declared himself fit for this weekend's Tetley's Bitter Cup final with Wasps at Twickenham. Dawson pranged his shoulder during the Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Llanelli last Sunday and feared the worst for 48 hours afterwards, but the injury has responded to intensive treatment and he trained without difficulty at Franklin's Gardens yesterday. Pat Lam, the extraordinarily resilient club captain, also expects to face Wasps after shoulder trouble, but there are serious doubts over Craig Moir, the wing, who has a knee problem.
The Scotland internationals Andy Nicol, Gordon McIlwham and Jason White have pledged their immediate futures to Glasgow Caledonians. Nicol and White have signed three-year deals while McIlwham and his team-mate Gordon Bulloch have agreed to two-year contracts.
Tickets for Leicester's end-of-season game against Bath a week on Sunday have now sold out. The Welford Roaders are anticipating a crowd of around 17,000 for the key match.
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