Wilkinson signs deal to end speculation over Leicester move

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The Independent Online

It has been an exciting few days for Newcastle and its sporting heroes: first King Kev, now Saint Jonny. Unpredictable, too. No sooner had Mr Keegan, that crown prince of attacking football, presented the faithful with a mind-numbing goalless draw against the mighty Bolton Wanderers than the city's rugby team put 97 points past El Salvador – the Spanish club side, not the country – without Mr Wilkinson scoring any of them. He wasn't actually on the pitch, in fairness, but it still seemed strange.

The important issue of the moment was not beating the weakest side in the history of European tournament rugby, however. It was to get Wilkinson's thumbprint on a new contract. This, the Falcons duly achieved. The England outside-half signed a two-year extension to his current deal yesterday and it left John Fletcher, the director of rugby at Kingston Park, in something approaching a state of ecstasy.

"This is a massive endorsement of where we are going," Fletcher said. "It's no secret that Jonny had offers from elsewhere, but this is his home. It's where his pals are and it's where he sees his rugby future – where he believes he can fulfil his own ambitions as well as helping the team reach its collective goals. He's an incredible sportsman and a tremendous ambassador for the club and for the region."

Wilkinson has long been a serious target for other Premiership sides, and when his great friend and confidant, Steve Black, left his job as Newcastle's conditioning coach in darkly mysterious circumstances before Christmas, there were expectations that Leicester would lead the stampede for his services. But the World Cup winner and occasional England captain is nothing if not a creature of habit, and with Leicester also heavily linked with the Argentine maestro, Juan Martin Hernandez, he decided to stick with the devils he knew.

From the wider perspective, it is reassuring that the club can afford him. Next season's salary cap is expected to rise by around 35 per cent to £4m – not a sum all Premiership sides will easily muster – and with the Tynesiders already paying a mint to the All Black prop Carl Hayman, there must have been some concern that by keeping Wilkinson, they would find themselves spending money they did not have. Business has been fairly brisk at Kingston Park this season, however, and the team are coming along nicely. Newcastle may be an outpost of English union, but they have designs on a place at the centre of things.

Bath, currently in an unstable state as a result of Steve Borthwick's decision to join Saracens next season and the management's decision to strip him of the captaincy, were also busy on the re-signing front. The outsized wing Matt Banahan, very much the talk of the town since breaking into the side at the start of the season, has pledged himself to the cause for another two years.

Worcester, meanwhile, announced something similar concerning another of the Premiership's new hot-shot finishers, Miles Benjamin. The 19-year-old wing has been responsible for a significant proportion of the struggling Midlanders' brighter moments of late, and with Rico Gear, that most resourceful of New Zealand wings, overseeing his development, there is a growing view at Sixways that they have unearthed a rare gem.

Three members of last year's World Cup squad failed to train with England at Twickenham yesterday: the wing Paul Sackey, who is believed to have contracted mumps; the lock Simon Shaw, who has a worrying ankle injury; and the scrum-half Peter Richards, who damaged his biceps at the weekend.

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