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Martin Castrogiovanni is linked with a move to French side Toulon

Cash-go-giovanni: Toulon must stump up if they want Martin

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UPDATED:

22:01 GMT, 28 December 2012

French big-spenders Toulon must stump up a transfer fee if Leicester to part with Italian tight-head Martin Castrogiovanni.

Speculation in France has pointed to Castrogiovanni joining the likes of Jonny Wilkinson next season, but the Argentinian-born forward has a year still to run on a three-year deal at Leicester.

The 31-year-old is on the bench Saturday in Leicester’s Aviva Premiership match at home to Gloucester having returned from a trip back to Argentina for family reasons before Christmas.

Heading for the exit Italy and Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni (right) has been linked with a move away from Welford Road

Heading for the exit Italy and Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni (right) has been linked with a move away from Welford Road

But Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill said the player had not asked for a move though he was aware of the interest from a French club who also said to be chasing Bath scrum-half Michael Claassens.

Cockerill added: ‘He’s under contract for another season.

'We have accepted transfer fee for our players in the past but at this time the player hasn’t come and seen me and said he wants to leave and we have had no official approach from Toulon.

‘So at this point Castro is our player and is here for another season. If Toulon have enough money to buy him out of his contract with us that might be an option, but at this point he is our player and we are more than happy to have him.’

Or not: However, Leicester Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill (pictured) has said that the player has not asked for a move as yet

Or not However, Leicester Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill (pictured) has said that the player has not asked for a move as yet

Castrogiovanni has made himself a popular member of the Leicester squad since he joined in 2006 and has always given full credit to the club for helping him become one of the most powerful props in the world.

Leicester might be interested in off-loading him in an effort to keep within the Premiership salary cap budget of 4.5 million a season.

When Castrogiovanni signed his latest deal two years ago, it was reported he was on a deal of well over 200,000 per season.

Since then, however, Leicester have developed Dan Cole into a tight-head of international repute and have high hopes that Fraser Balmain, a recruit from Newcastle, will also become another top-class prop.

The rise of Cole: The emergence of Dan Cole (pictured) as a world-class prop has limited the popular Italian's playing time in recent seasons

The rise of Cole: The emergence of Dan Cole (pictured) as a world-class prop has limited the popular Italian's playing time in recent seasons

Cockerill has admitted that he faces a fight to keep all his top players, including England lock Geoff Parling who has yet to agree a new deal.

Gloucester, who are losing Scotland lock Jim Hamilton to France, are reported to be heading the queue.

Parling starts today against Gloucester having had to do substitute duty in last week’s win over London Irish. But there is no place yet in the Leicester squad for Tom Croft, the England flanker, who is poised to make his comeback from a serious neck injury sustained last April.

Cockerill said: ‘When you have been out for that amount of time you have to be careful coming back into big fixtures. Tom will have to wait another week or so maybe which won't hurt him.’

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Danny Cipriani recalled by Sale Sharks

Reprieve for Cipriani as Sale recall fly-half for clash with Worcester

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UPDATED:

14:13 GMT, 28 December 2012

Sale Sharks have recalled Danny Cipriani, presenting the former England fly-half with a surprise chance to restore his reputation at the club.

He was dropped from the side which lost to his former club Wasps Adams Park last Sunday, and felt the brunt of co-owner Brian Kennedy’s stinging attack, who challenged his commitment.

Despite this, and in the wake of a relatively improved performance during the 25-18 defeat, Cipriani will start tonight against Worcester, in place of Nick Macleod who has a back injury.

Back in the fold: Cipriani has been recalled by Sale

Back in the fold: Cipriani has been recalled by Sale

Kennedy blasted the 25-year old, saying: ‘If you’re not prepared to put your body on the line for this club, who pay your wages and give you the chance to play at the highest level each week, then you won’t be in the squad, will you’

The club’s director of rugby, John Mitchell, also had some cold advice for the player, who has been accused of laziness.

'Danny knows the situation and what’s going on and he knows that there needs to be an improvement in performance,’ Mitchell said.

'He has to improve his defence. Last week against Toulon he defended for 35 minutes and then chose not to do so.'

The onus is now in Cipriani who, blessed with world-beating talent, has failed to prove he can show focus and dedication for Sale.

They currently sit five points adrift at the foot of the Premiership table and have only recorded one win, against London Irish, in their 11 league games.

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Jonny Wilkinson wins Ian Wooldridge award

Pride of a lion: Wooldridge award goes to delighted England hero Wilkinson

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UPDATED:

22:45 GMT, 2 November 2012

When Jonny Wilkinson was told he had won this year’s Ian Wooldridge Award, while on his way to be interviewed on a beach in the south of France, his delight was evident and genuine. He understood just what this particular accolade represents.

The former England and Lions fly-half has had more than his fair share of plaudits and prizes over the course of a glittering, record-breaking career.

In that greatest of all years, 2003, Wilkinson wound up with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and IRB Player of the Year awards, to complement the World Cup and Grand Slam successes.

Mile wide smile: Jonny Wilkinson with the award and a column written by Ian Wooldridge about him

Mile wide smile: Jonny Wilkinson with the award and a column written by Ian Wooldridge about him

For some time, Wilkinson was also the leading points-scorer in the history of international rugby and after calling time on his England career at the end of last year, his haul from 97 Tests for his country and the Lions stands at a staggering 1,246 points. There is an outside chance that tally may yet increase as the 33-year-old has indicated his desire to win selection for the 2013 Lions tour of Australia.

The fact that this award has been bestowed on him is testament to his enduring ability to kick goals and win games, now solely on behalf of his club, Toulon.

Wilkinson remains a potent sporting figure, yet being voted winner of the prize created in honour of Sportsmail’s iconic columnist is an indication of his standing in the public’s affections.

It also serves as a tribute to the way he has played the game throughout his career — with endless commitment, a sense of fair play and a strength of spirit which helped him recover and prosper after so many injury setbacks.

‘For me to be involved in anything like this is fantastic,’ said Wilkinson. ‘I appreciate what it stands for. It touches me enormously. The way Ian Wooldridge wrote showed clearly what he stood for and that was an inspirational message to me.’ The way ‘Woollers’ would endlessly champion Corinthian values struck a chord with Wilkinson, who added: ‘I met him several times. He wrote stories that my family and I took huge pleasure in.

Well done: Wilkinson is presented with his trophy

Well done: Wilkinson is presented with his trophy

‘Because of his values, his column was something we regularly talked about as a family. My dad would often ring me up and tell me to read his column that day. I didn’t really read newspapers, but I would read his columns.

Roll of honour
2008 Chrissie Wellington2009 Rebecca Adlington2010 Jessica Ennis2011 Amy Williams 2012 Jonny Wilkinson

‘He just hit it from an angle that resonated with everything that we believed in. Whatever big events were going on, he would look at it from that angle and I just remember thinking the whole time that he was a guy driving his own values, no matter how the world and the media was driven. He didn’t change to fit in. That meant I liked to read what he wrote because you always got consistency. It felt like you could rely on him and respect where he was coming from.’

In the fifth year of the award, Wilkinson is the first male recipient. Previous winners have been triathlete Chrissie Wellington, swimmer Rebecca Adlington, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and, last year, Winter Olympics gold medallist Amy Williams. When Ennis was mentioned as a previous winner, he was especially delighted to be in such exalted company.

‘That’s awesome,’ said Wilkinson. ‘I’m surprised Jess Ennis hasn’t won it again, to be honest! It is a great thing for me to be part of and it’s great that people think of me that way.’

Last season, thanks in large part to the
exploits of their English playmaker, Toulon reached the final of the
French Top 14 league, only to lose to mighty Toulouse. The Cote d’Azur
club have responded by setting the pace in the current campaign —
leading the table with eight wins from nine matches. Their only defeat
was at Toulouse, when Wilkinson was rested.

Take down: Wilkinson is tackled

Take down: Wilkinson is tackled

On Thursday he was back in the old
routine, kicking all the points, with eight penalties from nine attempts
as his side beat Stade Francais 24-19 at home.

For
the first time, when fully fit, the former Newcastle No 10 will be a
distant observer during an autumn series. The man who was the darling of
Twickenham for many years believes England go into the QBE
Internationals against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand
with cause for optimism.

‘I see England in a good place, definitely, but this autumn series is crucial,’ he said. ‘You know you’re going to be facing big teams but crucially you’re facing them at home. The expectation level is key. Within the team it should be, “We’re looking at nailing all four of these”.

Kick king: Wilkinson thinks England are in a good place

Kick king: Wilkinson thinks England are in a good place

‘If you do it, suddenly you’re on a roll and that starts to look after games for you. If you do it now, then you’re in 2003 territory. There were a few great performances on tour in South Africa, so England should be looking to beat these teams. I believe we can.

‘The team are showing signs of toughness and in order to get that ball rolling, you’ve got to have that foundation of toughness. That’s the thing I’m enjoying about England at the moment. The guys feel that, if they go down by 20 points — or whatever it was in the first 15 minutes against South Africa (in Johannesburg) — there was no-one saying, “We’re going to get beaten by 80 points”. Instead they were saying, “OK, that’s a bad start but let’s turn it around”.’

No doubt when England are in action again, Wilkinson will feel a pang of regret he is no longer involved. But he has plenty to occupy him in Toulon and the move has reinvigorated him. The way he’s going, there’s time for a few more awards before he calls it a day.

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Mathew Tait"s return is like a new player for Leicester: World of Rugby

Tait's style is a welcome change from big hitters

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UPDATED:

22:02 GMT, 4 October 2012

For Leicester, it must be like having an exciting new signing — a dangerous attacking talent, young and English. For Mathew Tait, it surely feels like the start of a whole new career.

On Monday, the 26-year-old took part in a match again, which would have been a joyous novelty. And he scored a try too, which undoubtedly stirred distant memories of better days gone by.

It is almost a year since Tait last played. Soon after joining the Tigers from Sale, he was struck down by a groin injury and condemned to a prolonged spell of inactivity.

To hell and back: Mathew Tait has been out injured for almost a year

To hell and back: Mathew Tait has been out injured for almost a year

Learning to fly provided an outlet for his frustration and quite possibly saved his sanity.

Now, at long last, the one-time Newcastle prodigy has made his comeback, in an ‘A’-team game against Worcester, at Welford Road.

One burst of his fabled pace on a familiar outside break led to his second-half try, soon followed by removal from the firing line.

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For the time being, the aim is to steadily coax his body back into the rigours of regular, high-intensity action. But in time, the Tigers must hope that Tait can add a different dimension to their game.

The same goes for England, for this is a rare talent who had seemed in grave danger of going to waste.

Tait was 18 when he made a Test debut in Cardiff in 2005. But after being brutally tossed around by Gavin Henson, he was cruelly tossed aside by the then national coach, Andy Robinson. That led to positional shifts, and a loss of form and self-belief.

Yet along the way he has won 38 caps and despite the rough treatment, crises of confidence and injuries, he has caught the eye.

New Zealand’s acclaimed Sevens coach, Gordon Tietjens, saw Tait running amok during the 2006 Commonwealth Games and pronounced that had he been a Kiwi, he would have played 50 Tests for the All Blacks by then.

In the 2007 World Cup final, which England lost to South Africa, it was Tait’s scorching break which led to Mark Cueto’s famous, ruled-out ‘try’. In that instant, he showed a glimpse of his class as a high-octane strike runner.

These days, so much emphasis is on bulk and off-loading prowess, yet if Tait can hit his stride again, he is too good for England to ignore.

While the game is dominated by the crash-bash-release routine, there still must be scope for guile and nimble, elusive qualities.

It would be a wondrous sight to observe this faded, almost lost star shining anew.

Pumas go in search of historic win over Wallabies

It could be a perfect storm. Australia face Argentina in Rosario on Saturday, decimated by injuries and with their head coach under siege following last weekend’s abject 31-8 defeat by the Springboks.

Quade Cooper’s public trashing of the regime has been an unwelcome circus sideshow and the Pumas are on the rebound after being thrashed by New Zealand, which will make them even more dangerous.

Side show: Quade Cooper has caused unwelcome pressure on the Australians after his outburst

Side show: Quade Cooper has caused unwelcome pressure on the Australians after his outburst

It would be no surprise if this Rugby Championship decider culminated in an historic home win.

And if so, it would be no surprise if Robbie Deans is sacked, leaving the Wallabies on the look-out for a new coach just nine months before they confront the Lions.

O’Shea could give us Rome comfort

At The Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup launch on Monday, politics dominated discussions.

With the next meeting of ERC stakeholders looming in Rome three days from now, when the TV rights war which is threatening the future of European competition will top the agenda, it became apparent that Conor O’Shea should be sent in to mediate.

As an Irishman working in England, Harlequins’ director of rugby has ample perspective and a knack for diplomacy from his previous role in high-level sports administration.

Send him to Rome: Harlequins Director of Rugby Conor O'Shea proved himself to be a perfect diplomat

Send him to Rome: Harlequins Director of Rugby Conor O'Shea proved himself to be a perfect diplomat

He offered a robust argument in favour of the salary cap — citing Arsenal’s book-balancing act in football and the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy in his own country.

Send him to Rome and there could be a way out of this mess. Instead, it is destined to rumble on for months, although, when asked about the prospect of continental events going ahead without the mutinous English, ERC chief executive Derek McGrath said: ‘It is almost unthinkable that could happen.’

There appears to be an increasing willingness to consider reform of the divisive qualification format, but as for the rival TV deals — that thorny issue will be much harder to unravel.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK 1

'My home life is wrecked by this s**t' – Jonny Wilkinson concedes that
the ongoing 'battle' in his mind, stemming from a fervent dedication to
his profession, does not always lead to domestic bliss in the south of
France.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK 2

'I was awe-struck by the Olympics. I got the spikes out and started
running on the track. I had the high knee-lift and saw myself as Usain
Bolt. I was like a little kid again' – Wilkinson on his personal Olympic
legacy.

The Last Word

Someone must convince Mike Phillips to go teetotal for a while. Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, should demand that he steers clear of alcohol for 10 months.

That way, the troubled Bayonne scrum-half could concentrate on playing rugby, which he’s rather good at when his heart and soul are in it. In fact, he’s world class when he’s on-song and off the booze.

But his short, sharp suspension and public rebuke from his French club over another late-night outing, following a recent Top 14 defeat, shone a light on his failings.

Keep off the booze: Bayonne's scrum-half Mike Phillips should stop drinking to keep his British Lions chances alive

Keep off the booze: Bayonne's scrum-half Mike Phillips should stop drinking to keep his British Lions chances alive

Phillips has been in far more than his fair share of nocturnal scrapes in Cardiff and now he’s exporting his bad habits, but at 30 he should have learned to clean up his act by now. And in this Lions year he should be on his toes rather than on the tiles.

He may have been the first-choice Test scrum-half in 2009 but this time he will need to be at the peak of his powers to see off the dual English challenge from Ben Youngs and Danny Care.

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Jonny Wilkinson keen to earn British Lions place for tour of Australia

Lionheart Wilkinson is ready for one last roar Down Under to end painful memory of 11 years ago

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UPDATED:

22:05 GMT, 3 October 2012

Jonny Wilkinson retired from Test rugby at the end of last year and he doesn’t regret doing so, despite fearing that he would. But he is ready to make an exception to that decision, in order to fill the career void which is ‘niggling’ him.

The former World Cup-winning England fly half wants to play for the Lions again, next summer, when they go back to Australia – scene of the near-miss in 2001 which remains raw in his memory.

A month ago, upon being confirmed as the head coach for the 2013 tour, Warren Gatland revealed that he would consider selecting Wilkinson even though he is no longer involved in the international game. Now, the iconic No 10 has declared his readiness to answer the call if it comes.

Ready to roar: Former England fly half Jonny Wilkinson is keen to go to Australia with the British Lions

Ready to roar: Former England fly half Jonny Wilkinson is keen to go to Australia with the British Lions

At the age of 33, he remains a potent force in France’s Top 14 league, where his assured exploits guided Toulon to six straight wins at the start of this season, before they lost last weekend, while he was rested. Should Wilkinson maintain his fine form at Biarritz on Saturday, and in the weeks and months ahead, he could make a compelling case for inclusion in the Lions squad.

While Gatland has various stand off contenders, from Ireland’s Jonny Sexton to Rhys Priestland of Wales and Toby Flood or Owen Farrell from England, none of them possess the Test pedigree that Wilkinson can offer. It is impossible to discount the notion that he could make the cut after standing down from England duties – just as Lawrence Dallaglio did in 2005.

And Wilkinson has the will to join the crusade Down Under, as he indicated on Wednesday. ‘There’s no way I could say no,’ he said. ‘In terms of what that represents, everything about it, it’s enormous – such a fabulous thing.

‘The joy is the fact it doesn’t have to come with international rugby. You start, you give it everything and you finish and say thanks very much. For me, that is the beauty of it. It doesn’t matter where you come from. You have got six weeks, get your boots on and get into it.’

First taste: Wilkinson's first Lions Tour was in 2001 with the narrow defeat to Australia

First taste: Wilkinson's first Lions Tour was in 2001 with the narrow defeat to Australia

Reflecting on Gatland’s encouraging remarks, he added: ‘It’s difficult for Warren Gatland. People are going to ask him questions and he’s going to respond with respect. I’m focused on having a massive season at Toulon, but selection is out of my control. I appreciate I’m playing in France – not so much out of sight, out of mind, but a little bit further away – and there are a lot of guys doing a lot of good things in home nations rugby at the moment.’

Eleven years ago, Wilkinson was the Lions’ first-choice fly half in the pulsating series against the Wallabies which ended in an agonising 2-1 defeat after the tourists had claimed a sensational victory in the opening Test in Brisbane.

Recollections of that disappointment remain painfully fresh to this day and provide an obvious focal point for his ambitions now. The chance to go back to Australia and right that wrong would be a prospect to savour.

Ultimate disappointment: Wilkinson falls to his knees after his the Lions lost the Third Test match against Australia in 2001

Ultimate disappointment: Wilkinson falls to his knees after his the Lions lost the Third Test match against Australia in 2001

'It is niggling away at me,’ he said, about the lack of a Lions series win on his CV. ‘In 2001, I sat in the changing-room after the third Test and it felt like a World Cup Final loss. As disappointments go, it was up there, definitely.

'So much had gone into getting to a position of having a shot at it. It’s like trying to run a marathon, getting to the 25th mile and someone saying, “That’s it”. To complete one you need to go right back to the start, knowing how hard the 25 miles were and knowing you could fall after 10 miles next time, like we did in 2005.

'Australia were on fire at the time and that first Test was incredible. The second Test was incredible up to a point and the third Test was just a great game. Knowing we had a shot, the disappointment was ridiculous.’ Yet, for all his desire to take part in one last epic tour, Wilkinson harbours an ‘element of realism’ about his hopes of a call-up.

‘I’m a 33-year-old foreign player in France,’ he said. ‘I’m not England’s mainstay fly-half, leading the team. All I can do is play and see if I fit into those plans. If I don’t, I’ll just have to make the best of what I’ve got here which, let’s face it, is good enough.’

Winning kick: Wilkinson 2003

Now: Wilkinson with the cup

Then and now: Wilkinson's drop kick won the World Cup for England in 2003 against Australia, and he holds the trophy nine years later in France

On Wednesday, his status as an ambassador for the 2015 World Cup in England took him to a cemetery here, perched on a hill above the glistening Mediterranean, to lay a wreath of roses at the grave of William Webb Ellis – credited as the founder of rugby.

The trophy named after him was once more within Wilkinson’s grasp, as it was famously in 2003, when his extra-time drop goal gave Sir Clive Woodward’s team their last push to global glory.

Later, the former Newcastle prodigy spoke of his deliberations about the future – about whether or not to keep playing when his current contract with Toulon expires at the end of this season.

New life: Wilkinson is making a name for himself in France's Top 14 with Toulon

New life: Wilkinson is making a name for himself in France's Top 14 with Toulon

‘The decision is so difficult,’ he said, before explaining that his priority is to bow out on a high, not fade away.

‘It scares me more than anything that someone should turn around and say, “We’ll take him on because he is this guy, he did this in the past, he hangs around, he signs a few things, he doesn’t get angry, seems to be relatively patient” – that that might count more than what I’m doing on the field.’ At this stage, there is precious little chance of that scenario coming to pass.

Wilkinson also outlined his desire to progress from playing into coaching, in a mentoring role akin to that of Dave Alred, his own kicking guru over so many years. He has already been assisting the other kickers at Toulon and in time that yearning to pass on accumulated wisdom will become all-consuming.

But for now, he won’t consider becoming a player-coach. For now, he remains a player of considerable quality. For now, while he is still going strong, he wants to be a Lion again.

For all the latest news on Rugby World Cup 2015 in England join The Front Row, the official RWC 2015 ezine, at www.rugbyworldcup.com/signup

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Alex Cuthbert signs Cardiff Blues contract extension

Wales star Cuthbert commits to Cardiff with one-year extension

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UPDATED:

17:18 GMT, 16 May 2012

Wales wing Alex Cuthbert has committed his future to the Cardiff Blues by signing a contract extension with the region.

The 22-year-old, scorer of the clinching try against France when Wales clinched the Six Nations Grand Slam in March, had been weighing up a move away from the Blues, with several French clubs reportedly interested in securing his signature.

But he has given the region a timely boost by choosing to continue to ply his trade in the principality.

Victory: Alex Cuthbert won the Six Nations Grand Slam in March

Victory: Alex Cuthbert won the Six Nations Grand Slam in March

He said: 'I am very pleased to be re-signing for another year with the Blues and I can now look forward to the summer tour with Wales and next season with the region.

'I had a few offers outside of Wales and having gone through all the options thoroughly with family and friends, I came to the conclusion that the best option was to stay at the Blues, showing my loyalty to the region, coaches and the fans.'

Cuthbert has enjoyed a meteoric rise this season.

The Wales Sevens cap broke into the Blues side at the start of the campaign, and his powerful performances saw him win his first Wales cap against Australia in December.

The giant three-quarter then played a key part in Wales’ Six Nations clean sweep, scoring tries against Scotland, Italy and France as he formed a formidable wing partnership with George North.

Cuthbert’s decision to remain with the Blues bucks the recent trend which has seen Wales internationals agree big-money moves to play for clubs in England and France.

Paul James, Luke Charteris, Aled Brew and Huw Bennett have been among those to make the decision to leave the regions.

The Blues themselves have lost prop Gethin Jenkins to Toulon and hooker Rhys Thomas to Wasps, while Kiwi centre Casey Laulala and former Scotland fly-half Dan Parks will join Munster and Connacht respectively.

But Cuthbert admitted ensuring his availability to represent his country was one of his key considerations when deciding his future, and is looking forward to working with new Blues boss Phil Davies next term as the region return to their Arms Park home.

'Playing for Wales was a huge part of my decision to stay with the Blues and playing for the region regularly will hopefully strengthen my chances of keeping my place in the Wales team,' he said.

'Obviously with Phil taking over as head coach it’s exciting times for the region as well.

'I know Phil from my time with the Wales Sevens where he was involved. He’s a great coach, I’ve heard he’s very well organised and puts good structures in place which I know will benefit the club next season.

'I’m also very excited that the Blues are moving back to the Arms Park, I’m yet to play there in front of a full crowd so hopefully we can do that next season.

'I’ve watched a few games down there and the atmosphere is unbelievable and if we maintain good crowds that will help us no end on the pitch.'

Cardiff Blues chief executive Richard Holland added: 'Following discussions and negotiations with Alex and his agent we are delighted that he has extended his contract with the region.

'Alex has had a phenomenal first season, going from playing for Cardiff RFC, to the Blues and winning a Grand Slam with Wales and he will certainly strengthen our squad next season.

'This is more positive news for Cardiff Blues supporters ahead of our move back to the Arms Park next season.'

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Jonny Wilkinson helps Toulon into Challenge Cup final

Ex-England fly-half Wilkinson shines to send Toulon into Challenge Cup final

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UPDATED:

21:29 GMT, 27 April 2012

Jonny Wilkinson held his nerve after a series of late misses to kick Toulon into the Amlin Challenge Cup final after a thrilling all-French showdown.

The former England fly-half scored 27 points in total to add to Steffon Armitage's first-minute try.

But it was a nervy encounter as Stade Francais led for most of the first half and edged ahead once more on the hour, and Wilkinson needed four attempts to settle the match in his side's favour.

Hero: Jonny Wilkinson of Toulon celebrates with team-mates

Hero: Jonny Wilkinson of Toulon celebrates with team-mates

Toulon took the lead through Armitage's superb score and they almost had another inside four minutes following more good work by the flanker, only for scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde to drop the ball as he tried to offload from a tackle.

But poor tackling let Morgan Turinui through to set up full-back Hugo Bonneval for a converted score in the 12th minute which nudged Stade ahead.

Fly-half Jules Plisson kicked two penalties and a drop goal to extend the visitors' lead to 16-5 but Wilkinson was on target with penalties in the 32nd and 40th minutes, either side of Plisson's third, to leave the half-time score at 19-11 to Stade.

Kicking king: Wilkinson helped Toulon into the Challenge Cup final

Kicking king: Wilkinson helped Toulon into the Challenge Cup final

Wilkinson took his side into the lead with three penalties and a drop goal in the first 15 minutes of the second half but Turinui rounded off a wonderful passing move from the base of a scrum to restore the visitors' advantage, Plisson adding the extras to make it 26-23.

Two Wilkinson penalties countered by a Plisson drop goal left the scores level at 29-29 going into the final 10 minutes – but with Stade winger Julien Arias in the sin-bin for cynically preventing a try after Plisson's kick was charged down.

Wilkinson missed the resulting penalty and then a drop-goal attempt before remarkably putting a 30-metre effort wide from a central position – but he kicked the crucial drop goal from just over 40 metres a minute from time to ensure his side will face Biarritz or Brive in May 18's final.

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Delon Armitage tipped for England recall

London Irish coach Smith backs Armitage for England recall despite France move

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UPDATED:

21:00 GMT, 16 April 2012

On his way; Armitage is leaving London Irish in the summer

On his way: Armitage is leaving London Irish in the summer

Delon Armitage has been backed to make England’s 2015 World Cup team despite his decision to join Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon.

Armitage, 28, has quit London Irish for France after a string of disciplinary issues, including four suspensions in the past 15 months and a police caution for a nightclub incident following England Saxons’ game at Exeter in January.

But Irish’s new director of rugby, Brian Smith, the former England assistant coach, believes the full back can return to claim a place at the 2015 World Cup.

‘We would welcome him back with open arms,’ Smith said. ‘My advice is for him to go to France to get the frustrations out of his system, play a lot of rugby then come back because on his day he is the best full back in England.’

He added: ‘I have no doubt he can launch a bid to play for England again.’

Armitage, who won the last of his 26 England caps at the World Cup last year, claimed he had been ‘victimised’ after his run-ins with the game’s authorities.

Exiles: Armitage joins Jonny Wilkinson and brothers Steffon and Guy at Toulon

Exiles: Armitage joins Jonny Wilkinson and brothers Steffon and Guy at Toulon

Gavin Henson suspended: Airline investigates

Airline launches investigation into Henson incident as Welsh bad boy is suspended

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UPDATED:

07:30 GMT, 1 April 2012

An airline has launched an investigation into an incident on a plane that led to Wales rugby star Gavin Henson being suspended by his club.

Henson, 30, who joined Cardiff Blues in October last year, was suspended after an incident on a flight from Glasgow back to the Welsh capital on Friday night.

A Cardiff Blues spokesman said he was suspended 'with immediate effect' following the incident, which came after their match against Glasgow Warriors.

In the dock: Gavin Henson has been suspended by Cardiff Blues

In the dock: Gavin Henson has been suspended by Cardiff Blues

Not the first time: Henson has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons before

Not the first time: Henson has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons before

The spokesman added: 'The Cardiff Blues management team will meet first thing Monday morning to discuss the matter further.'

Later, airline Flybe said it was carrying out its own investigation.

'With regard to flight BE3431 from Glasgow to Cardiff on March 31, Flybe can confirm that it is gathering information from its own staff as well as those at both airports and will make no further comment at this time,' a spokeswoman said.

Henson was a wing replacement in the 31-3 defeat by Glasgow on Friday.
He signed for Cardiff Blues in October on an eight-month contract and they became his fourth club in the space of 12 months after brief spells with Saracens and Toulon in the wake of his departure from the Ospreys.

At the time, he said: 'I've been saying I wanted to play back in Wales and I'm glad of the opportunity that Cardiff Blues have given me.

'I just want to do everything I can to make them happy and enjoy my rugby. I'm glad I've signed here.'

Henson, who has 33 caps to his name, toured New Zealand with the British Lions in 2005.

Henson is also well known outside of rugby after a long-term relationship with singer Charlotte Church, in which they had two children together. They split two years ago.

He has also appeared on reality TV shows 71 Degrees North, Strictly Come Dancing and The Bachelor.

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Six Nations 2012: France coach was a Sale hero but his zeal could undo England

Shark on the attack! France coach was a Sale hero but his zeal could undo England

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UPDATED:

22:11 GMT, 8 March 2012

France will pose a grave threat to England on Sunday, founded on the passion and pragmatism of coach Philippe Saint-Andre.

So say two members of the title-winning Sale team that Saint-Andre led as he rose to prominence as a coach in the English game.

High standards: Philippe Saint-Andre (left)

High standards: Philippe Saint-Andre (left)

Jason Robinson was captain of the
Sharks when they won the Premiership in 2006, two years after
Saint-Andre's arrival at the Cheshire club. He believes the 44-year-old
is capable of adding that missing element of consistency in France's
game, as does another former England back, Mark Cueto, who scored a try
when Sale thrashed Leicester 45-20 in the league final at Twickenham six
years ago.

Following stints at Gloucester and Bourgoin, Saint-Andre was appointed at Edgeley Park in 2004. He remained in the North West for five seasons, during which time there was also a European Challenge Cup triumph, preceding the title success. From there, the former France captain spent two seasons at Toulon before being appointed France coach.

His team have claimed two wins and a draw in his first three games in the post, against Italy, Scotland and Ireland, in this RBS Six Nations.

Saint-Andre (second left) mixed passion and pragmatism as a player

Threat: Saint-Andre (second left) mixed passion and pragmatism as a player

Robinson believes England will face opponents who are driven to perform for their coach; a man who sets high standards and gives them intensity.

'Philippe brought a no-nonsense attitude to Sale,' he said. 'He would certainly tell you what he thought – if we had meetings, anyone who'd had an average game would sit at the back!

'He demands 100 per cent all the time. Philippe won't take any prisoners, he will speak his mind and, when you have so many top players and strong characters around, you need that. He will make sure that they know who is boss.

'He is very passionate. Quite often when Philippe gave a speech, he would start off quite calm but, as the words flowed, more and more emotion came out. It was almost as if he was playing the game himself from the way he spoke. And, if you had a bad first half, the paint would come off the walls at half-time!'

Impressed: former Sale captain Jason Robinson

Impressed: former Sale captain Jason Robinson

There has been evidence already of the Saint-Andre devotion to simple, safety-first rugby in the way France have played in this championship. If in doubt, they will keep it tight, kick for position and settle for counter-attacking from turnovers. This is no surprise to Robinson.

'Philippe wants the basics done well,' he said. 'He puts a lot of emphasis on the set piece, securing the ball, defensive work, field position – playing in the right areas, getting a good platform, putting the opposition under pressure, taking the points on offer and building a score.

'Then, when it's on, he's happy for you to have a go. France can mix up their game, but he will be looking for structure.'

Cueto takes up the same theme, adding: 'He doesn't fit in with the image you might have of a France winger. They are all about skill and flair, and Philippe would allow that in a game if it just happened, but it was never a case of going out to do that.

'As a sign of the way we were playing (in 2005-06), I was the club's leading try-scorer in the league … with four tries, even though we had a back line including guys like Jason Robinson and Steve Hanley.'

Cueto also recalls a specific example of the Gallic passion that is such an integral part of what Saint-Andre offers as a coach.

'I remember when we went to France for a Heineken Cup game against Clermont,' he said. 'There was added emotion for Philippe to be going over with his English team to face a French team, so it was really important for him personally that we gave a good account of ourselves. Before the game he gave an emotional speech about how humble he was and how he reflected on himself as a player.

'He talked about how he had got all these caps and had captained France, but that as a winger he didn't think he had been especially quick or skilful. But he said that he'd had a burning desire inside to succeed. He put the message across to the lads that we were here to play one of the top French teams and on paper maybe we shouldn't win, but we had that belief and togetherness, so we could do it. It worked – we won the game.'

In Paris on Sunday, the visitors must hope that Saint-Andre is not so inspirational when his side are favourites to win.