Wilkinson future at Newcastle uncertain

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The Independent Online

It is difficult to imagine Jonny Wilkinson leaving Newcastle his classroom, his laboratory and his refuge; the centre of his uniquely self-driven sporting universe. There again, it was difficult to imagine Steve Black leaving, until he left. The abrupt departure of Wilkinson's closest confidant from the Kingston Park back-room team earlier this week may not have cut the cord connecting the two men, but it has put some distance between them. Under the circumstances, will Wilkinson stay beyond the end of the season? The Falcons want him to, but do not sound wholly convinced that he will.

"There is always speculation about Jonny," said John Fletcher, the director of rugby, yesterday. "He's been with us for 10 years and there has been speculation in each of them, but he's still here. He is out of contract in the summer, as are 12 or 13 others, so he and his management team will have a decision to make. Jonny and Steve have a very close relationship, both professionally and personally, so you could say it might be a factor in that decision, but then, there are any number of factors. A player does what he feels is best. I would say this, though: players very rarely leave this club."

The silence surrounding the breaking of the bond between Black and Newcastle has been deafening. The club have refused to divulge details of the whys and wherefores, while the fitness and conditioning coach says he is not in a position to offer an explanation of his own. No one seriously believes there were handshakes all round, though, for Newcastle's brief statement announcing Black's exit could not have been terser.

Wilkinson will play at outside-half when Connacht visit Tyneside on Sunday in the fourth round of European Challenge Cup pool matches. Mathew Tait, another member of the England team who lost a tight World Cup final against the Springboks in October, will also perform his most familiar role, having been shifted from full-back to outside centre. Fletcher insisted this was "not a massive drama", but as some members of the national coaching team see Tait as a No 15 rather than a No 13, it is not an irrelevance either.

Tonight's Heineken Cup matches in Belfast and Biarritz should shed a little light on the most competitive pool phase in years, if not much. Ospreys, bruised and battered by the latest episode of "The Gavin Henson Show", travel to Ulster in need of the kind of victory Gloucester recorded there in the opening round and have picked a side equipped to deliver it. James Hook and Justin Marshall are the half-backs, Ian Evans and Alun-Wyn Jones the locks, Jonathan Thomas and Marty Holah the flankers. It is a strong line-up, to be sure

Glasgow, meanwhile, will move to the top of Pool Four not something Nostradamus could have predicted, let alone anyone else if they eke out a victory in Basque territory. Their prospects are not particularly good, though. They have suffered 25 consecutive away defeats in this competition since winning in Belfast 10 years ago.

Ed Morrison, the outstanding official of his generation, will replace Colin High as the Rugby Football Union's elite referee manager when the latter retires in June. Morrison, who controlled the 1995 World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand in Johannesburg, has been working as a development officer for the RFU for several years. That vacancy will be filled by another popular West Countrymen, Tony Spreadbury, whose professional refereeing career is drawing to a close.

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