Newcastle are labouring under quite a burden these days, not least because they are six points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership and, as things stand, have every chance of seeing their prize assets – Rob Andrew, Jonny Wilkinson, a very smart new stand at Kingston Park – disappear into the dark depths of National League One. Another pressing problem is the amount of home rugby to which they, and their accountants, can look forward between now and the end of the season. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are not talking about a fat lot.
Out of the Powergen Cup, the Falcons have a Parker Pen Challenge Cup quarter-final leg against Saracens, plus a single Premiership match in each of the next four months. They are unlikely to break the bank with that kind of financial pulling power; indeed, they may find it difficult to keep their raft of signings from the southern hemisphere – Mark Mayerhofler, Mark Andrews, Warren Britz and the rest – in square meals.
Help is at hand, however. The Johannesburg-based Cats, one of South Africa's four Super 12 franchises, are keen to gear up for the world's leading provincial tournament by playing a couple of games in England, and are close to finalising fixtures against Northampton on 10 February and Newcastle four days later. It would not be the worst fixture in bums-on-seats terms, for the Cats now bring to the party the most talked-about Springbok of the last decade, Bob Skinstad, who moved to the high veld from Cape Town during the summer.
Northampton are in a happier situation in terms of home fixtures: this weekend's Heineken Cup pool game with Biarritz should guarantee a sell-out crowd at Franklin's Gardens, and they are still in the domestic knock-out competition. The club said yesterday that the Cats game had yet to be fastened down, but the likelihood is that the South Africans' preparations for their opening Super 12 match with the Blue Bulls on 22 February will be launched in the East Midlands.
"I am hoping the English teams will stretch us and test us so we can move into the Super 12 competition familiar with our patterns and with a good understanding as a team," Tim Lane, the Cats' coach, said. Other South African franchises are thinking along the same lines. Both the Cape Town-based Stormers and the Durban-based Sharks are playing competitive matches in England in the coming weeks.
Still on the fixture front, a frenzied period of pre-World Cup Test activity in late summer will be busier still following Italy's announcement of warm-up matches against Scotland, Ireland and Georgia. The Azzurri will play in Edinburgh on 23 August, in Dublin a week later and then host the Georgians at an as yet unconfirmed venue on 6 September. The Scots are already scheduled to tour South Africa in June, while the Irish will head for Australia at the same time.
James Simpson-Daniel, the threequarter prodigy from Gloucester whose introduction to Test rugby with England was cut short by a bout of glandular fever, is expected to play for his club against Viadana in the Heineken Cup this weekend – his first appearance since catching the imagination with some high-quality touches during the red rose victory over Australia at Twickenham in November. The 20-year-old wing was diagnosed as suffering from the illness after that match, and missed the 50-point demolition of the Springboks.
Phil Christophers, the Bristol wing who replaced Simpson-Daniel that day, is struggling to make the cut for his club's daunting Heineken Cup visit to Montferrand on Sunday, having made little progress with the rib damage that kept him out of last weekend's Premiership defeat at Harlequins. Shane Drahm, the Australian outside-half, is also doubtful for the trip to France, but two forwards, the flanker Michael Lipman and the hooker Saul Nelson, are hopeful of returning from injury.
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