Jonny Wilkinson, Gavin Henson and Brian O'Driscoll, three icons of British and Irish rugby, are hoping the new-year weekend will prove a favourable turning point in their respective fortunes.
Wilkinson, injured for most of the 25 months since he dropped the goal that won the World Cup, looks certain to be named among Newcastle's replacements for today's Guinness Premiership game against Worcester at Kingston Park.
But the 26-year-old England fly-half, on the mend from a groin operation, will not be rushed back, according to Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew. "Jonny will only be included if both he and ourselves are 100 per cent happy. Clearly we're not going to force the issue if he's not ready," Andrew said.
Meanwhile, Worcester will definitely be without Pat Sanderson, Tim Collier, Nicolas le Roux, Shane Drahm and Chris Horsman through injury.
The good news for Henson is that his club, the Ospreys, are set to appeal against the 10-week ban he received for elbowing Leicester's Alex Moreno in a recent Heineken Cup encounter - a sentence which in effect rules him out of Wales's games in the 2006 Six Nations' Championship.
O'Driscoll, whose Lions' tour in New Zealand last summer was ended in less than a minute of Test action by that spear tackle, continued his comeback by playing for 65 minutes of Leinster's 35-23 Celtic League win over Munster in Dublin yesterday. He was eventually replaced by Denis Hickie due to stiffness in a shoulder (not the one he injured in Christchurch) but the Leinster management insist he will be fit for next weekend's trip to Llanelli.
Leinster, who leapfrogged their opponents into pole position in the table, owed their victory to a 25-point salvo from their Argen-tinian fly-half Felipe Contepomi, including two late tries, and touchdowns from Brian Blaney and Shane Horgan. Paul O'Connell and Trevor Halstead went over for Munster while Ronan O'Gara kicked 13 points.
In the other all-Irish match, the bottom side Connacht shaded Ulster 22-12 in Galway with tries by Matt Lacey, Conor McPhillips and David Slemen, who also landed two conversions and a penalty. David Humphreys, with four penalties, was responsible for all Ulster's points.
Borders moved up to fifth with a 24-13 win over Glasgow.
Northampton welcome back the England hooker Steve Thompson and former All Blacks fly-half Carlos Spencer for today's Premiership home meeting with Bristol. Bath have strengthened their scrum-half resources ahead of tomorrow's home game against the leaders, Sale, by signing the New Zealander Billy Fulton, 27. Youngsters Adam Powell and Tom Ryder have been selected, at centre and lock, by Saracens for tomorrow's visit to Leicester, who have given the back-row forward Brett Deacon, 23, a new two-year contract.
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