Rugby Union: Andrew leads rout of Richmond

Richmond 3 Newcastle 20
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The Independent Online
THE INJURY bulletin from the Newcastle dressing room came as music to the anxious ears of Rob Andrew: his teenage protege, Jonny Wilkinson, sported a purple golf ball - rather, a purple cricket ball - where his right eye had once been, but a couple of ice packs and a following wind would see him right for England's imminent Grand Slam scrap with Wales.

Phew, crikey, close shave. Had the extensive rearrangement of Wilkinson's cherubic features included just a hint of concussion, a certain international coach might well have been in emergency contact with the Andrew homestead this very morning.

You laugh, but this is a serious point. With Paul Grayson, Will Greenwood and Phil de Glanville out of the running for this Sunday's Five Nations finale at Wembley, and Jeremy Guscott's iffy hamstring rendering him a borderline case, a mandatory three-week lay-off for the Boy Wonder would have left Clive Woodward a long way up the midfield creek with only his bare hands for paddles.

Under those circumstances, a phone call to "Squeaky" would not merely have proved the best option, but would pretty much have been the only one.

Especially as Woodward always "picks on form": on the evidence of Newcastle's ruthless, passionate and utterly convincing Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final victory at Richmond on Saturday, "form" means Andrew. The old smoothie may be 36, and no longer particularly quick on his feet: certainly, he was nowhere near sharp enough to avoid Matt Dixon, Richmond's Australian centre, who performed a premature burial on his opposite number as early as the second minute, thereby registering the Londoners' only worthwhile moment of the afternoon. But in terms of distribution, kicking, leadership and 20-20 tactical vision, no-one at the Madejski Stadium came within a bull's roar of the ageing maestro.

Dixon's perfectly legitimate assault left Andrew in severe distress - "There was nothing much wrong with me except my head, neck and shoulder," he winced afterwards - and had Wilkinson not finished a poor second in a collision with the fast-moving Nick Walne on the half-hour mark, the senior citizen might easily have settled for a view from the dug-out.

As it was he made Dixon and his colleagues pay through the teeth for their lack of respect by pinning Richmond deep in their own 22 with a torrent of perfectly judged touch-finders, before weaving Va'aiga Tuigamala in and out of the offensive line to dramatic effect.

Tuigamala bagged both Newcastle tries, the first a short-range steamroller job through and over Jon Barfoot and the second a long-range steamroller job through and over the aforementioned Dixon, who understandably found the 17st former All Black wing a more challenging proposition than the 12st former England stand-off. Tuigamala was immense, literally and figuratively, but as Field Marshal Mont- gomery probably pointed out, there is no point owning a tank unless you have someone to load the shells. Andrew knew precisely how to arm his prize piece of artillery.

"It means a tremendous amount to the club to reach the final, more than you can imagine," said the Newcastle director of rugby and chief executive. "We've been through the mill these last few months and a big Twickenham occasion gives us a priceless opportunity to recapture some of the public support we received when we were chasing the Premiership title this time last year. Apart from the fact that we can win a second major trophy in two years, the final keeps our season alive right to the very end. We all know how important it is to make next season's European Cup - financially, it would make a massive difference - and this will help us keep our focus."

Quite how successful Richmond, penniless and trophyless, will be in maintaining focus, or even interest, remains to be seen. Many sentimentalists suspected it might be their Twickenham year, quite reasonably assuming that the off-field crisis instigated by Ashley Levett's abrupt decision to close his wallet and head for the hills would bring out the very best of Ben Clarke and company on the field. Sadly, the opposite has happened. The Londoners have not won a game since plummeting into financial administration. If they continue to play as they did on Saturday, they will soon have fewer points than pounds.

"I can't quite believe what I've just seen," said John Kingston, their admirably up-front coach. "We certainly picked the wrong day to freeze. If someone had said to me before the match that we'd concede two tries, I would probably have thought: `Okay, I'll settle for that.' But the way we attacked, their two tries were always going to be two too many. We worked hard and prepared well for this and we thought we had the game plan to beat Newcastle, but no side makes that many mistakes and concedes that much ball in contact and goes on to win a semi-final."

As expected, the Richmond front row made the Falcons sweat buckets at the set-piece. Andrew felt that his second and third choice tight heads, Ian Peel and Simon Best, had "done a job", but no amount of encouragement from the boss could disguise Newcastle's scrummaging fragility in the absence of their Springbok anchor, Marius Hurter. Elsewhere, though, it was one-way traffic.

There were big Geordie performances across the board, not only from the been-there-and-done-it brigade, but from the less pensionable players. Ross Beattie, the visitors' 21-year-old No 8, looked like a new Dean Ryan in the making.

Richmond do not intend to sell their soul for a few bob in the kitty. "A cup final would have put us in the shop window, but we can do without the kind of investor who wants us for what we've won rather than what we are," said Kingston. But Richmond are broke, and with half a dozen Premiership clubs circling their best player, Agustin Pichot, like vultures, the adage about beggars and choosers has a certain relevance.

Richmond Penalty Va'a. Newcastle Tries Tuigamala 2; Conversions Wilkinson, Andrew; Penalty Andrew; Drop goal Andrew.

Richmond: M Pini; N Walne, J Wright, M Dixon, S Brown; E Va'a, A Pichot; D McFarland, B Williams, D Crompton, A Sheridan (B Cusack, 52), C Gillies, C Quinnell, B Clarke (capt), R Hutton (J Barfoot, 11).

Newcastle: S Legg; T Underwood, M Shaw, J Wilkinson (J Naylor, 29), V Tuigamala; R Andrew, G Armstrong (capt); G Graham, R Nesdale, I Peel (S Best, 65), G Archer, G Weir, P Walton, R Beattie, R Arnold.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).