Heavy-duty Perpignan eclipse Falcons' fallen star

Perpignan 33 Newcastle 12
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The Independent Online

In a modest hotel 10 kilometres north of Perpignan, Jonny Wilkinson balanced on his crutches and spoke of the challenges life likes to throw our way. News had come through of the storms and fatalities in the north of England, Wilkinson's adopted home; the horror in south Asia is ever-present. This pleasant individual, endowed with a wondrous sporting gift, was already attempting to slot his latest setback into its place in the natural order of things.

Dressed casually in a white T-shirt and designer jeans, Wilkinson signed a couple of autographs - something like his millionth since winning the World Cup 14 eventful and yet uneventful months ago - but, mercifully, the hotel lobby was quiet. This Catalan outcrop of France had settled down since being en fête on Saturday afternoon, what with Perpignan's bonus-point win and the annual "coming of the Magi" festivities.

"It's just another hurdle to clear," said Wilkinson, evenly. "It's not as damaging as it might have been. I was worried at first when it happened, and very down at the stadium. The difficult bit is, mentally, dealing with yet another injury. But worse things are happening in the world." Wilkinson travelled home with his team-mates yesterday, dealing with the ramifications of a partial tear to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee he suffered when landing awkwardly under a Perpignan tighthead prop and a couple of his mates.

"It could have been worse," Wilkinson said, but he knows the score. Another phase of rehabilitation, of possibly four to six weeks - not as long, at least, as the nine months he spent recovering from an operation to free a nerve near the top of his spine after the World Cup. Another round of speculation over when he might don the mantle of England captain which was supposed to be his before he missed the autumn internationals with a badly bruised biceps. Another hiatus spent consulting with, initially, an orthopaedic doctor today, then working through medical bulletins and strengthening the knee to do the only thing he is actually interested in - playing rugby.

All followers of the sport will be on Wilkinson's side, regardless of whether or not they prefer Charlie Hodgson as an England fly-half. In his 68 minutes on the field - five matches and two starts into his second comeback of the season - Wilkinson made a slamming tackle on his long-time international colleague, Dan Luger, and several others which slowed an opponent without poleaxing them.

One early, cut-out pass to Mathew Tait almost brought a try; the Newcastle pack's travails prevented too much other excitement in attack. And Wilkinson's goal-kicking was faultless: four penalties from four attempts to defy the cacophony of cat-calling from the locals - who then gave him a standing ovation when he was helped off.

Perpignan successfully targeted their opponents' scrum, and after the first half finished 9-9, they battered their way to four tries from the forwards.

But, in part, the crowd had come to see one of the game's greats. The booing was a compliment, the ovation doubly so. Rob Andrew, Newcastle's director of rugby, found it a struggle to be sanguine about the man he has mentored from his teens. "Jonny had nine years without injury," said Andrew, "now there's been three in succession. If bad things come in threes, we have to hope this will be the end of it for him."

Steve Black, Newcastle's fitness coach, said: "He took the ball up like the good pro that he is, and was just unlucky." The Falcons' Australian full-back, Matt Burke, is struggling for fitness and Dave Walder, well-practised in the role of fly-half understudy, underwent a knee operation last Friday. So it could be another Wilkinson, Mark, who steps in at No 10 for Sunday's home match against the Newport-Gwent Dragons, when a win would secure the club's first Heineken Cup quarter-final. Yesterday, "Sparks", as Jonny knows him, was concerned only with giving his kid brother another crutch to lean on, should he need it.

Perpignan: Tries Kairelis 2, Mas, Van den Heever; Conversions Edmonds 2; Penalties Edmonds 3. Newcastle: Penalties J Wilkinson 4.

Perpignan: F Cermeno (D Giannantonio, 68); P Bomati, D Marty (C Manas, 72), J-P Grandclaude, D Luger; M Edmonds, N Durand (L Loustau, 75); P Freshwater (V Debaty, 63), N Grelon (J-G van den Heever, 68), N Mas, C Gaston (C Porçu, 32-39, 40), R Alvarez Kairelis, G le Corvec (J Labat, 75), S Robertson, B Goutta (capt).

Newcastle: J Shaw; T May, M Tait, J Noon (M Mayerhofler, 32), M Stephenson; J Wilkinson (co-capt, M Wilkinson, 69), J Grindal (H Charlton, 60); I Peel (co-capt, J Isaacson, 51), A Long (M Thompson, 78), M Ward, L Gross (A Buist, 51; S Sititi, 73), S Grimes, M McCarthy, P Dowson, C Charvis.

Referee: N Williams (Wales).