Falcons grateful for Wilkinson's efficient return

Newcastle 23 - London Irish 16
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The Independent Online

After eight months of unrelenting toil and several weeks of nervous anxiety, it all boiled down to the last few minutes of a momentous league season before anyone could be sure of what awaited him. While Newcastle needed to ensure a place in next weekend's wildcard semi-finals, Irish were in mortal fear of losing their place in the Premiership.

After eight months of unrelenting toil and several weeks of nervous anxiety, it all boiled down to the last few minutes of a momentous league season before anyone could be sure of what awaited him. While Newcastle needed to ensure a place in next weekend's wildcard semi-finals, Irish were in mortal fear of losing their place in the Premiership.

With five clubs locked together in the relegation vortex, Irish were notionally the least vulnerable of the desperate quintet, needing to avoid a heavy loss and, only if Harlequins and Worcester won, and Leeds and Northampton each gained a bonus point, would Irish be facing a future in National One next season. Complicated and climactic for sure, and it has been utterly engrossing as the competition has pounded down to the wire.

While this was a game with relegation written all over it, the subplot featured one Jonny Wilkinson, making his first Premiership start for almost two months. As at Northampton two weeks ago, when he came on late in the first half, Wilkinson looked as if he has never been away. There has been no apparent dip in his self-confidence - he was fully involved in the rough and tumble and tackled as effectively as usual. His kicking out of hand was awry on one or two occasions, but his goal-kicking was, apart from a missed conversion and a 50-metre penalty which flew wide, in good health. He helped himself to 18 points and lobbed an inch-perfect overhead pass for Matt Burke to score Newcastle's only try.

"What Jonny needs is some more game time," said Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby. "He is not quite as sharp as he can be, but his contribution was colossal." As to the game itself, Andrew declared: "Our target was to get into the wildcard, which we achieved. It wasn't a pretty game, but on some days you just have to find a way of winning and hang in there. With a little more quick ball we would have won more comfortably."

For almost an hour, Irish were cussed and as defensively sound as they can be, which goes a long way when you are as short of creativity as they are. They scored one spanking try, through Delon Armitage, after Keiron Dawson's break, and might have notched another if Michael Horak had not been denied by a bizarre refereeing decision, when he crossed in the 20th minute. With only three Barry Everitt penalties to add to Armitage's score, they stayed in touch for a welcome losing bonus point.

It was 10-8 to the Irish at the break, before Wilkinson took the Falcons back in front with his third penalty. Three more penalties by Wilkinson - who will surely, barring any further injury mishaps, be on the Lions' flight to New Zealand - took the game away from Irish, even though they were still going strong till the end.

Newcastle: M Burke; T May, J Noon, M Mayerhofler, M Tait; J Wilkinson, H Charlton (J Grindal, 60); G Alvarez Quinones (M Ward, 62), M Thompson (A Long, 46), M Ward (D Wilson, 34), L Gross, S Grimes, C Charvis (capt), C Harris, P Dowson (M McCarthy, 14-21).

London Irish: M Horak; S Staniforth, G Appleford, N Mordt (M Mapletoft, 68; P Murphy, 72), D Armitage; B Everitt, P Hodgson; N Hatley, A Flavin, R Hardwick, R Strudwick (capt), B Casey, P Gustard, (K Roche, 31), K Dawson, R Reid.

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).

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