Today's the day at last for Wilkinson

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Jonny Wilkinson will play his first game since the World Cup final when he turns out for the Newcastle Falcons in their Zurich Premiership match against Northampton Saints at Kingston Park this afternoon.

Wilkinson has been out of action with a fractured shoulder since returning home in triumph from the World Cup, but two weeks after the injury was diagnosed he is fit to play again, having passed a fitness test on Boxing Day. He has not kicked a ball in anger since slotting the drop goal against Australia that won the Webb Ellis Cup, though the injury did not interfere with his relentless kicking-practice sessions.

"I have been training very hard. The doctors have insisted that the fracture was no worse than in an arm or leg," he said. "I have been desperate to play and to do my bit for Newcastle. I have practised kicking every day since we returned from Australia, and the Northampton match was always a likely target."

The Falcons director of rugby, Rob Andrew, was confident that his prize asset had made good enough progress to be able to play this weekend, and was proved correct after Wilkinson came through a Boxing Day training session and was passed fit.

"He has been training with us and the medics have said they are not massively concerned," said Andrew. "He is desperate to get out there. He hasn't done any contact work yet, but he has done lots of kicking practice."

The returning hero will not be lining up against two of his Sydney team-mates; both Ben Cohen and Matt Dawson are missing for Northampton. Cohen picked up a groin injury against the Barbarians while Dawson hobbled off with a calf strain during Saints' Midlands derby against Leicester.

But Northampton's hooker Steve Thompson, another of Clive Woodward's world-beaters, is named on the bench alongside Wilkinson's understudy in Australia, Paul Grayson, after shaking off the ankle injury he picked up while training with England.

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