Vickery returns for Wasps as Newcastle look to Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

You would be forgiven for thinking he had had enough by now, what with three back operations and a fractured eye socket and enough neck problems to account for an entire generation of 18th-century French aristocrats, but Phil Vickery, the England captain, is prepared to give it another blast, starting this afternoon. The dear old stick will take his place in the Wasps front row for an intriguing EDF Energy Cup meeting with Newcastle at High Wycombe a tie that puts the winners in the last four.

Vickery has not played since leading England in the World Cup final against South Africa in October. He played magnificently that night but did not last the match indeed, he failed to reappear after the interval, having damaged his neck once again in a goal-line stand that had more than a touch of the epic about it. Some felt he would call it a day on his return from Paris, but he quickly indicated that if the doctors gave him the all-clear, he would see out the rest of the season.

Wasps, slumming it in the wrong half of the Premiership after a rough start to the campaign but now in the kind of form that is a serious threat in both the domestic and European cup environments, will be at something close to full strength. Only Tom Rees, the international flanker, misses out, having failed to recover from the hand injury he suffered during last week's comfortable league victory over the same opposition.

Newcastle have beefed up their midfield for the game both Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood are fit to do their contrasting things and have Carl Hayman, the big-money signing from All Black country, as their prop cover on the bench. David Wilson, seen by many as an England tight-head specialist in the making, retains his place in the starting line-up, but he will have to play unbelievably well to keep a heavyweight figure like Hayman among the replacements. Good for Newcastle, but bad for England? We shall see.

Saracens, who will make the semi-finals if they avoid defeat at Llanelli Scarlets today, have left Andy Farrell on the bench Adam Powell partners the captain, Kevin Sorrell, at centre while Neil de Kock's injury gives Mosese Rauluni, the Fijian scrum-half, a chance from the get-go. Rauluni turned in one of the great individual performances of the World Cup in scaring the living daylights out of the Springboks on quarter-final day in Marseilles. More of the same here will see the Scarlets railroaded out of the competition.

Ospreys, the most likely of the Welsh sides to reach the business end of the tournament, travel to Harlequins tomorrow in search of the point they need to survive the pool stage. A losing bonus point will be sufficient, but with the likes of Gavin Henson and Marty Holah definitely starting, they will expect more. Quins are hard to beat, though, especially at The Stoop. It should be interesting.

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