Rugby Union: Wilkinson closes door on Quins

Newcastle Falcons 33 Harlequins 23
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The Independent Online
IF THE Euro-threatened neurotics of Bath and London Irish were in no mood to trust Harlequins last night, it was not only because of the French grey and magenta in those famous old shirts, although the dodgy colour scheme is usually more than enough reason for the city slickers to be held in the deepest suspicion. On this occasion, the Premiership nearly men were more concerned by the fact that Quins had left Zinzan Brooke and their entire front row on the bench for a trip to a venue where Newcastle had lost only one league game in more than three years.

Well, the Londoners did not quite knock the Falcons out of European contention; both Bath and Irish must wait for the outcome of the final three games of the campaign to discover whether European qualification by the back door is a possibility. But not even the most myopic Quins critic could accuse them of turning up their toes in an outstanding contest at Kingston Park. They soaked up an ocean of Newcastle pressure and had it not been for Va'aiga Tuigamala's muscle and a superlative late try from Jimmy Cartmell, a replacement Geordie flanker, they might well have recorded their fifth successive victory on the road.

Even when Quins were 10 points adrift in injury time, they continued to run their lungs out; Jamie Williams was within a metre of a deserved second try when Tony Underwood collared him at the right flag. Given the emotional and physical cost of clinching their European Cup place at Bath on Saturday, it was a performance entirely at odds with the visitors' brittle reputation.

They opened the scoring on 15 minutes when Williams slipped away on the left wing and opened the door for Jason Keyter. Two thunderous first-half strikes from Tuigamala threatened to take Newcastle clear, but Thierry Lacroix's kicking matched everything offered by Jonny Wilkinson and when Williams chipped Stuart Legg to cross unchallenged 10 minutes after the interval, Quins were 20-17 ahead.

Could it last? Not quite. Wilkinson landed two penalties in three minutes before supporting Underwood's break on the "wrong" wing and giving Legg and Ross Beattie the chance to ease Cartmell's path to the line. The England stand-off added the conversion - well, he doesn't miss, does he? - and just to rub it in, he creamed a wide-angled penalty to take Newcastle out of range.

Quins deserved better. Their back row of Bill Davison, Adam Leach and Steve White-Cooper, an open-side from South Africa whose future at The Stoop is by no means assured, worked overtime to stem the threat of Peter Walton, and there were fine defensive contributions from Will Carling and Peter Mensah.

In the end, though, Newcastle had to win, while Quins merely wanted to. The Falcons now have a cup final against Wasps to ponder before travelling to Saracens tomorrow week for the last Premiership hurrah. If they win, they will be in Europe next season. Watch this space.

Newcastle: Tries Tuigamala 2, Cartmell; Conversions Wilkinson 3; Penalties Wilkinson 4. Harlequins: Tries Keyter, Williams; Conversions Lacroix 2; Penalties Lacroix 2; Drop goal Lacroix.

Newcastle Falcons: S Legg; V Tuigamala, M Shaw, T May, M Wood (T Underwood, h-t); J Wilkinson, G Armstrong (capt); G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter, G Archer, G Weir, P Walton, R Beattie, S O'Neill (J Cartmell, h-t).

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, P Mensah, W Carling, J Keyter; T Lacroix (D Officer, 73), H Harries (C Wright, 67); D Barnes (J Leonard, 75), T Murphy (C Ridgway, 64), G Halpin (R Nebbett, 75), G Llewellyn, T Collier, W Davison, A Leach, S White-Cooper (K Wood, 75).

Referee: C White (Cheltenham).