At last Walder can emerge from Wilkinson's shadow

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The Independent Online

The joke used to go that Ringo Starr was not even the best drummer in the Beatles. Similarly, Dave Walder has never really had the chance to stake his claim as Newcastle's pre-eminent fly-half, let alone England's. But with Jonny Wilkinson's deadline to return from a shoulder operation proving as reliable as a rail timetable, this was the ideal chance for Walder and his Sale counterpart, Charlie Hodgson, to present their credentials. And all with the young maestro himself looking on.

Wilkinson, who has not finished a match since the World Cup, was deployed here to bring on drinks for his team mates - a taxing task during a fast, pacy game on a sunny afternoon but not what we are used to seeing him do in this corner of south-west London, taken over for the day by two teams from the North.

It made Wilkinson the most expensive water carrier since the Aswan Dam and he sat on the bench with his hands clasped in front of him, in contemplation rather than as the familiar preparation for yet another kick at goal. On a couple of occasions he was waved off the field by referee Tony Spreadbury, which was a bit like telling the Queen to keep of the grass at a Buckingham Palace garden party.

Wilkinson's latest comeback date is a none too convincing promise to make England's summer tour to the antipodes. If he is absent, as expected, his country's call may go out to Hodgson or Walder, or both.

Neither has fared much better with their fitness than Wilkinson. Walder missed most of last season with a broken leg but played here for an England XV against the Barbarians in May. Hodgson tore ligaments as a replacement against Italy 13 months ago, missing the World Cup as a result, and must have cursed the offending patch of turf close to the east touchline - until, that is, he landed a 45-metre penalty from almost the same spot yesterday to put Sale 23-17 up early in the second half.

Indeed, both men at No 10 did their constituents proud in the goal-kicking department. Hodgson was foot-perfect with seven out of seven; Walder missed just once in eight. In a full-on test of nerve, as Clive Woodward might have put it, both passed.

But Hodgson, on only his second start after succumbing to further knee trouble in the Heineken Cup in January, was betrayed by a lack of match fitness. He fell off a couple of kicks out of hand, and was charged down for Newcastle's winning try. Walder was suffering a similar fate. He punted downfield, only to have Jason Robinson return it directly to the Newcastle 22. And a penalty went dead instead of into touch in the last quarter. But the exception to the rule was when Walder brilliantly cleared to touch on halfway from hard by his own corner flag with just over a minute left to play.

Otherwise, the Geordie and the Yorkshireman showed any doubting Southern softies what they were about with the ball in hand. Hodgson stood flat, content to take contact, while Walder was deeper, crabbing and skipping much like his celebrated clubmate. He was helped, too, by the New Zealander at his shoulder, Mark Mayerhofler, in the making of Joe Shaw's try at the posts.

As the gongs were handed out, Hodgson stared glumly as his loser's medal. Wilkinson stood in the background and did not take part in Newcastle's lap of honour. He has done plenty of that with England, in Australia and at Twickenham when the World Cup came home in December. This pot was silver not gold, and it was Walder's day.

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