Jonny's brother steals limelight to lift Newcastle

Newcastle 25 - Newport-Gwent Dragons 17
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The Independent Online

Never say never in the Heineken Cup, unless you particularly enjoy being made to look a mug. Newcastle had never reached the knock-out stage of Europe's premier club tournament, and did not appear to stand an earthly chance of doing it this time when Matthew Burke, Jamie Noon, Epi Taione, David Walder and some bloke called Wilkinson congregated together in a casualty department the size of Tyneside.

The fact that three of those high-quality backs suddenly discovered the Lazarus effect and some other bloke called Wilkinson - Jonny's older and largely anonymous brother Mark - materialised from nowhere to play the game of his life, could not have been anticipated.

By the same yardstick, Wales had never previously failed to register a presence in the last eight of this competition. They sure managed to put that right at Kingston Park yesterday. Chris Anderson, the Dragons' hard-bitten Australian coach, had not been fooled for a moment by an initial Newcastle team announcement reflecting an injury list of Napoleonic magnitude - "There was a fair bit of smoke and mirrors about it, but I've been around too long to be taken in by that sort of thing," he said - but he must have been taken aback by the elder Wilkinson's efforts at outside-half. After all, the 27-year-old midfielder had spent the entire campaign playing second-string rugby at inside centre.

"Mark hadn't played for the first team since last season, and he was struggling with a calf injury anyway," Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew, said in admiring tones.

"But of all the people we could have asked to play out of position at 10, we felt he was the best equipped. He is not the quickest, compared to some of the people we have in our back division, but he has good hands and good feet. What is more, he understands how we play. All I asked of him was that he found ways of allowing the people around him to function, and he did it brilliantly.

"To play 10 in a match of this magnitude, coming into the game from where he came from, was a magnificent effort."

Wilkinson was heavily involved in two of Newcastle's three tries. The Geordies, never headed but never comfortable either on what Andrew had described as the biggest home match in their history, were 13-5 up nine minutes into the second half when their makeshift pivot somehow made light of his awkward body position to flick a damaging pass to Mathew Tait, who promptly found Tom May in space down the right. May did well to complete the score with three Dragons breathing the fires of hell down his neck, but few players in England make a better fist of a 50-50 opportunity when the stakes are at their highest.

That score did not kill off the Dragons. Far from it. A couple of minutes from the end of the third quarter, the Welshmen conjured a stunning try out of nothing, Ceri Sweeney looping his centres in midfield and sending the roaming Gareth Wyatt through the tiniest of holes in the Newcastle defence - a break that gave Kevin Morgan, always a decent bet in a foot race, the chance to outstrip the cover and leave Sweeney with a kickable conversion into the bargain. Had the visitors bagged the next score, they would probably have left Newcastle with a quarter-final place, rather than a big fat nothing.

But they did not bag the next score. That went to Newcastle when Wilkinson lured Morgan into no-man's land with a long pass off his left hand - a pass that found Matthew Burke, the former Wallaby full-back and a career match-winner, stampeding into the offensive line. Burke dummied to Noon outside him, thereby wrong-footing the remnants of the Dragons' defence, before locating top gear and cruising over like a thoroughbred. His successful conversion put his side 25-12 ahead, a lead that rendered a stoppage-time try by the industrious Ian Gough entirely superfluous.

If Gough was the pick of the Dragons' pack - leaving aside one unpleasant flash of cynicism that put the unfortunate Michael Stephenson off the field, his was a courageous effort - he did not have much to beat. Newcastle won all the battles that mattered amid the heavy traffic, thanks to an unusually secure scrummage - proof positive that Anderson, a rugby league man to the tips of his toes, has presided over an alarming decline in his own side's set-piece performance - and a back row who scarcely put a foot wrong.

Colin Charvis, one hell of a player on his day, was far too hot for his fellow Welshmen in the 57 minutes he spent on the field, while Mike McCarthy and Phil Dowson made significant progress in their efforts to register an impact on a wider public blissful in its ignorance of their talents.

Newcastle will not be favoured to survive another round in this most demanding of tournaments, but as Andrew said: "This, just this, is a great achievement for the club, a massive statement of what we're about."

It will give them confidence, that's for sure. Who knows? Next time Andrew names a team for an important match, he may even feel able to announce one full of players he believes will play, rather than players he knows will not.

Newcastle: Tries Charvis, May, Burke; Conversions Burke 2; Penalties Burke 2. Newport-Gwent Dragons: Tries Wyatt, Morgan, Gough; Conversion Sweeney.

Newcastle: M Burke; T May, M Tait, J Noon, M Stephenson (E Taione, 70); M Wilkinson, H Charlton (J Grindal, 8); I Peel (capt, J Isaacson, 65), A Long, M Ward (Peel, 78), L Gross, S Grimes, M McCarthy, C Charvis (S Sititi, 57), P Dowson.

Newport-Gwent Dragons: P Montgomery; G Wyatt, H Luscombe, S Tuipulotu, K Morgan; C Sweeney, G Baber (G Cooper, 62); A Black (R Snow, 62), S Jones, R Thomas (C Anthony, 50), I Gough, P Sidoli, J Ringer, J Forster (capt, R Oakley, 24), M Owen.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).

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