Rugby: Wilkinson's sharp reply

BY TONY WALLACE Newcastle 19 Bath 17
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The Independent Online
NEWCASTLE HAD their youth policy to be thankful for yesterday, as the faultless goal-kicking of Jonny Wilkinson, their teenage centre, secured victory against a far-from-convincing Bath at Gateshead with four penalties.

But the team as a whole are in nothing like the shape they were when stampeding to the title last May. Too readily dispossessed, uncertain going forward and with an ageing scrum who show little of the threatening authority of a season ago, the hosts put up a laboured performance. After the hype and the tumult of recent weeks, now it is time for the hard work.

On the evidence provided by both sides here, in front of a crowd which numbered just 3,500, there is much to do if either are to present themselves as genuine championship contenders this season.

The first half was a catalogue of missed opportunities. Va'aiga Tuigamala looked as eager and fresh as at any stage of the previous campaign, but he set the precedent with a dropped pass. Victor Ubogu hacked on but Jeremy Guscott, whose searing pace is now a distant memory, was unable to capitalise and Newcastle were let off with only a Mike Catt penalty. The advantage stayed with Bath in the opening quarter, although Wilkinson brought the sides level with his first penalty.

But it failed to lift the champions, who struggled to find any cohesion. With the chance to add to their earlier penalty, when Ieuan Evans held on to the ball from the spot where Wilkinson first goaled, Rob Andrew opted instead to kick for the corner. It proved the only shaft of inspiration in a dreary passage of play. Garath Archer won a clean line-out and Dean Ryan was on the end of a drive for the touchdown.

Wilkinson converted before slotting another penalty, while Catt answered with two more penalties, allowing Newcastle to shade the half 13-9. Soon after the break, Bath at last revealed something like their best form when Steve Hatley and Eric Peters combined sweetly to put Adedayo Adebayo across in the corner.

Catt failed with the conversion, but pushed Bath's lead to 17-13 with his fourth penalty. But nothing Catt offered was beyond the precocious Wilkinson, who struck twice more to see Newcastle home.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, J Wilkinson, T Underwood; R Andrew, G Armstrong; G Graham, R Nesdale, N Popplewell, G Archer, D 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)