Four short weeks into a season that will probably continue until the last man standing has collapsed with exhaustion, a number of clubs are already in Corporal Jones mode. Newcastle are one side with a whiff of panic about them. They intend to field Mark Wilkinson, the 24-year-old brother of the rather more celebrated Jonny Wilkinson, against the unbeaten high-rollers of Leeds in tomorrow's northern derby at Kingston Park. And it will be no surprise, judging by last week's desperate display at Leicester, if they select the England outside-half's father, second cousin, long-lost uncle and maiden aunt as well. At least the names will look good in the programme.
Basically, Rob Andrew's outfit need all the Wilkinsons they can get: their two away performances have been poor to the point of pitiful and, to make matters worse this weekend, their England A lock Hugh Vyvyan is suspended and their international wing Michael Stephenson is injured. If there is a silver lining attached to the filthy black cloud hovering over Tyneside, it is that one or two other teams, notably Bristol and Saracens, are also up their eyebrows in something nasty.
Bristol, who face the champions Leicester at the Memorial Ground tomorrow, have yet to win, and two victories over the Midlanders last term will count for double naff-all squared. The word on the street in the West Country is that Malcolm Pearce, the owner and chief executive, has had angry words with Peter Thorburn, the former All Black selector who took over as head coach in the summer, over certain aspects of selection. When Pearce gets a bee in his bonnet, the buzzing can be devilishly difficult to stop. Nothing less than victory will ease Thorburn's problems.
Saracens, meanwhile, get stranger by the day. Wayne Shelford, another of the New Zealand coaching fraternity, has reacted to horrible back-to-back defeats in the Thames Valley by resting Kyran Bracken, the England scrum-half, who happens to be the club captain as well as one of only two world-class players at Vicarage Road.
"Kyran has taken a bashing over the last four weeks," said Shelford, by way of justifying his decision to run the Canadian half-back Morgan Williams against Northampton. The same can be said for Sarries, though, and if they lose this one with both Bracken and Thomas Castaignede on the bench, questions will be asked.
Shelford is all too aware that in the absence of the injured David Flatman and Christian Califano, he does not possess a prop forward capable of holding up a bunch of flowers, let alone a Premiership scrummage. Hence the sudden and unexpected appearance of Andy Kershaw, one of the fringe front-rowers at Wasps, signed on loan. How interesting that Wasps made him available after their 50-point ransacking of Saracens last week, rather than before.
The second of today's games is the very essence of the ancient: Bath versus Gloucester in a neighbourly rumble at the Recreation Ground. There may be something fresh about the outcome, however. Bath, still unsure whether Mike Catt and Gareth Cooper will be fit for a struggling back division, have never lost a home league match to the Cherry and Whites, but form suggests – no, insists – that the natural order of things is about to be turned on its head. Gloucester for the title? This will provide a few clues.
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