Rugby Union: Wilkinson rescues struggling champions

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The Independent Online
Newcastle 19 Bath 17

NEWCASTLE HAVE yet to reveal the form they produced when stampeding to the Allied Dunbar Premiership title last May. Their ageing scrum disports little of the threatening hostility of a season ago, nor will it while they have two loose-heads in a disjointed front-row which badly needs the reinforcement of Western Province tight-head Marius Hurter, who arrives next month.

In the meantime they will be thankful to hang on as they did against an unconvincing Bath at Gateshead on Saturday, where Jonny Wilkinson kicked Newcastle to victory.

Bath will regret that they were unable to win for the second Saturday in succession, and leave Newcastle picking over the remains of two defeats in as many weeks. But the truth is that, while Newcastle are not the force of last season, Bath appear nothing like as persuasive or as capable as when they last won the league title in 1996. Two years ago Bath would have killed Newcastle off without a second thought.

Mike Catt will bemoan the fact that, while Wilkinson converted all his opportunities, the Bath outside-half missed twice with kicks, though in other respects he was Bath's most positive contributor. Had the other backs responded to Catt's alacrity it may have been a different story, despite his failure to convert Adedayo Adebayo's try which gave Bath a 14-13 lead, shortly after the break. Catt extended that by another three points with his fourth penalty, but this was Bath's last shout in front of a meagre 3,500.

While the poor attendance will no doubt concern those attempting to make Newcastle financially viable in their adopted home south of the Tyne, Rob Andrew will remain justified in his concerns that Newcastle are unable to make more of their possession. It took them an age to get into their stride, and even longer for the forceful Dean Ryan to claim their only try. Wilkinson converted with a huge kick from the left touchline and struck two superb penalties before Bath nosed ahead. Certain the outcome of the match rested with him, Wilkinson was the epitome of self-assurance as he kicked two more penalties to secure the points.

Newcastle: Try: Ryan. Conversion: Wilkinson. Penalties: Wilkinson 4. Bath: Try: Adebayo Penalties: Catt 4.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, R Andrew, T Underwood; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong; G Graham, R Nesdale, N Popplewell, G Archer, H Weir, S O'Neill (P Walton, 73), R Arnold, D Ryan (capt).

Bath: I Balshaw; I Evans; P de Glanville (capt), J Guscott, A Adebayo; M Catt, S Hatley (A Nicol, 75); D Hilton (J Mallett 60), A Long, V Ubogu, M Haag, N Redman, N Thomas, B Sturnham (R Webster, 72), E Peters.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax).

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