British & Irish Lion Jonny Wilkinson could begin his latest comeback from injury when Newcastle tackle Guinness Premiership visitors Worcester on New Year’s Day.
England World Cup hero Wilkinson has not played for more than six weeks, having undergone groin surgery in yet another fitness setback during a catalogue of injuries over the past two years.
Wilkinson’s last England appearance came in the 2003 World Cup final, while he has only started four games for Newcastle this season.
The Falcons have no intention of rushing him back into action, but a run-out off the replacements’ bench against Worcester would at least see him launch 2006 on a positive note.
"He was pretty close for the Leeds game," said Newcastle rugby director Rob Andrew, following a 13-10 victory over the Premiership’s bottom club at Headingley.
"We will see how we go on Thursday and Friday. We will not force him, as that would be stupid, but equally, if he is right for Sunday he will take some part in the game."
Mathew Tait’s try made the difference as Newcastle halted a recent Leeds resurgence to leave the Tykes pinned to the Premiership basement, two points behind fellow strugglers Northampton.
"The players responded magnificently," added Andrew. "Two days after Christmas, they have given everything for the club – you cannot ask for any more than that."
Leeds boss Phil Davies was left to reflect on his team’s eighth league defeat from 10 starts, and they now face a Kingsholm appointment with Gloucester followed by a Headingley clash against in-form Bath.
"We created enough chances to win two games, let alone one," he said. "It is very disappointing after five or six weeks of good momentum."
Bristol, viewed as pre-season relegation favourites, moved 11 points clear of Leeds by underlining their mid-table potential with a 15-3 victory against Memorial Stadium visitors Leicester.
Tigers head coach Pat Howard fielded just four of the starting line-up that beat the Ospreys in a bitter European Cup clash last week – but it was a decision that backfired spectacularly.
The likes of Martin Corry, Geordan Murphy, Andy Goode and George Chuter were rested, and Bristol should have had far more than five Jason Strange penalties to show for their efforts in a game they dominated territorially.
"It was a poor performance, no question about that," conceded Howard. "Some blokes still turned up and were very good, but a lot of players will have to take a long, hard look at themselves.
"But the buck stops with me. I made a choice to make the changes, and I will cop it sweet."
Leicester finished a distinct second best, and to rub salt into their wounds they lost New Zealand centre Daryl Gibson with a dislocated shoulder on his comeback appearance following a lengthy lay-off.
"Maybe they (Leicester) felt this was a game when they could rest a few players, and maybe we were fortunate they took us a bit lightly," said Bristol head coach Richard Hill.
"We had a huge amount of territory and possession, and although the pressure got to us in the second-half, we managed to keep enough composure to seal what was a relatively comfortable victory."
Barry Everitt held his nerve to land a 40-metre touchline penalty with the game’s final kick as London Irish pipped Saracens 20-19 at Vicarage Road to move above Leicester in third spot.
Everitt had already provided three penalties, a drop-goal and the assist for Michael Horak’s first-half try, although Saracens appeared to have clinched victory when Glen Jackson edged the home side 19-17 in front with his fourth penalty two minutes from time.
"We have won a few games with the last kick, and if you let nerves get into it, the ball doesn’t go over the bar," said Everitt.