JONNY WILKINSON, the 19-year-old Newcastle player being groomed for stardom by Rob Andrew, spared his mentor's blushes with a flawless display of kicking at Kingston Park yesterday.
Wilkinson landed his sixth penalty, to make it seven successes from seven attempts, just one minute from time to settle a pulsating Tetley's Bitter Cup fourth-round tie. His straight 40-metre kick sailed unerringly between the posts to complete Newcastle's remarkable fight-back from a 22-6 half- time deficit which owed much to a nightmare five minutes suffered by Andrew.
After losing his right-hand man, Dean Ryan, to Bristol in mid-week it simply didn't look like being Andrew's day. Penalised for a high tackle on Gareth Cooper, he saw Mike Catt give Bath an 8-6 lead after 31 minutes and two converted tries before half-time put the visitors in command.
The first followed Iain Balshaw's interception of an Andrew pass, allowing Bath to turn defence into attack, with Cooper chipping to the line, where the ball was recycled for Catt to cut through under the posts. Russell Earnshaw, deputising for Eric Peters, then touched down after a Newcastle clearance was charged down and Catt's second conversion seemed to leave the Falcons' Cup hopes in tatters.
Within 10 minutes of the re-start, however, Wilkinson had struck three times to set up the storming finish and Newcastle drew level eight minutes from time when Ross Beattie seized on a loose ball to burst through under the posts, giving Wilkinson a simple conversion.
Newcastle twice went close to scoring in the first three minutes, with Va'aiga Tuigamala heavily involved both times. First he introduced himself to Balshaw by bouncing off the youngster's tackle and sending Stuart Legg hurtling towards the corner. Legg's kick went dead, but Bath were immediately back under pressure as Tuigamala surprised them by kicking into space and hacking on almost to the line where Marius Hurter, the South African prop, seemed to have driven over. He was penalised for a double movement, however, and Newcastle had nothing to show for their early supremacy.
Wilkinson put them ahead with a 35-metre penalty after 13 minutes, but Bath went in front three minutes later when they kicked a penalty to touch and Richard Webster was driven over from the lineout.
The lead did little for Andy Robinson's peace of mind and the embattled Bath coach was clearly infuriated when referee Ashley Rowden bowed to a touch-judge's intervention and penalised Webster for trying to ruck Peter Walton out of the way. "It's a man's game," shouted Robinson, knowing that Walton had been lying on the wrong side.
Bath repelled two more barnstorming surges by Tuigamala and although Wilkinson put Newcastle 6-5 ahead the lead was again short-lived as Andrew's high tackle proved a turning point.
Andrew almost redeemed himself when a late drop-goal attempt drifted left of the posts, but at least it led to the drop-out at which Bath were fatally penalised when Ben Sturnham was guilty of leaning on an opponent. Wilkinson's resultant penalty ensured that Newcastle overhauled the sort of lead which the Bath of old would not have surrendered.
Robinson said afterwards: "At half-time we said it was nil-nil. We were taking nothing for granted but we missed one tackle and allowed Beattie to score. The season's not over. There are three months to go and we are a professional side."
Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, M Shaw, R Andrew (capt), V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong; G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter, G Archer, D Weir, P Walton, R Beattie, J Cartmell.
Bath: M Perry (I Evans, 52 min); I Balshaw, K Maggs, J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, G Cooper; D Hilton (K Yates, 65 min), M Regan, V Ubogu, M Haag, S Borthwick, R Earnshaw, D Lyle, R Webster (capt B Sturnham, 51 min).
Referee: A Rowden (RFU).