Leicester 39 Newcastle 5: Kay quick to test Jonny's recovery

England's talisman given a hot Leicester reception and survives to play another day
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The Independent Online

Look at this: a wind of change, perhaps, gusting through the shires. Leicester, one of the harshest critics of the Rugby Football Union, yesterday rested most of their front-line troops, which was manna from Welford Road for England a week before they play Scotland at Twickenham. Poor old Andy Robinson never had this co-operation. Sadly, Bristol didn't take the same line, and their No 8, Dan Ward-Smith, suffered a suspected dislocated knee-cap at Franklin's Gardens.

The Tigers stood down the heroes who won in Munster in the Heineken Cup the week before and even Martin Corry, who prefers to play eight days a week, was on the bench. All eyes, however, were on the Newcastle bench, where Jonny Wilkinson, who since his World Cup winning drop goal has spent most of the time donating his body to medical science, was primed to launch his latest comeback.

The plan was to ease him into the action in the second half, but when Anthony Elliott limped off with an ankle injury just before half-time Jonny came marching on. He had been on the field for a matter of seconds when he had to dive on a rolling ball and when he found himself at the bottom of the ensuing ruck he received a calling card from a World Cup colleague, Ben Kay.

The lock, who was captaining Leicester, charged into the mêlée like an enraged rhino and smacked straight into Wilkinson, who was trying to mind his own business. It was reckless, stupid and dangerous. What was Kay's purpose? To get the ball or to remind Jonny how inhospitable life is at Welford Road? "I was just trying to clear out the ruck," Kay said, "and I can honestly say I didn't know the player I'd hit was Jonny."

The latest affliction to keep the stand-off out of the game was kidney damage and about 20st of Kay tested Wilkinson's recovery to the limit. Kay hurt him all right, but he appeared to survive unscathed, which is more than can be said of Newcastle, who were given a right hammering here. Lots of clubs are force-fed shoe pie, but this was against Leicester's second string.

When Wilkinson, who had been out for 12 weeks, ran on to the pitch even the one-eyed Tigers supporters were glad to see him and the applause would have been music to his ears. The timing, though, was unfortunate. Newcastle not only lost Elliott to injury but Russell Winter to a yellow card. In the sin-bin he joined Jason Oakes, who had been shown a yellow card by the referee, Wayne Barnes, for bringing down a maul.

When Oakes took his breather Leicester were 6-5 ahead, two penalties by Paul Burke to a well worked try by Elliott, but the seven-man Newcastle pack wereunable to repel a drive and the beneficiary was Shane Jennings.

Shane is a lucky boy. A few minutes later, when the Falcons managed to exert some serious pressure, they were within touching distance of the Leicester line when Jennings put himself on the wrong side of the ruck and lay there like a sleeping policeman, killing any chance of a score. There was a penalty to Newcastle but no card for Jennings, which was almost as dodgy as Kay's impact on Wilkinson.

The arrival of Wilkinson, who hasn't played for his country since the World Cup final, meant that Toby Flood moved from stand-off to centre, and very quiet young Flood was too. He, rather than Jonny or the youngster Shane Geraghty, is the favourite to be named as England's No 10 when the team are announced tomorrow, and he would also be the goal-kicker. One of the most memorable things he did here was to miss a simple penalty. Wilkinson looked sharp and got in a few big hits of his own but overall Newcastle had very little to offer in attack for the simple reason that they spent most of the match on the back foot.

Newcastle's pack were unchanged from the eight who three weeks ago helped to inflict a 31-29 defeat on the Tigers at Kingston Park. Yesterday they were torn apart by a shadow XV. After Jennings had been driven over Leicester increased their lead on the stroke of half-time, Jordan Crane stretching over the line at the end of another concreted forward assault when the Falcons were down to 13 men. There was no let up. Another rolling maul resulted in a try for Marcos Ayerza and in the final flourish Tom Varndell helped himself to two tries as the Tigers picked up a bonus point to really rub Newcastle's noses in it.

John Fletcher, the Falcons' director of rugby, thought Wilkinson was just about ready for a Test comeback. "It's whether he's had enough contact and collision work," Fletcher said. Quite enough, thank you.

Leicester: J Murphy; L Lloyd (A Tuilagi, 61), S Rabeni, S Vesty, T Varndell; P Burke (I Humpreys, 68), F Murphy; M Ayerza, J Buckland, M Holford (M Castrogiovanni, 53), J Hamilton, B Kay (capt), B Deacon (M Corry, 63), J Crane, S Jennings (T Croft, 53).

Newcastle: A Elliott (J Wilkinson, 39); T May, M Tait, J Noon, L Crichton (M Mayerhofler, 68); T Flood, J Grindal (L Dickson, 55); J McDonnell (capt), M Thompson (A Long, 49), M Ward (J Golding, 61), M Sorenson, J Oakes, G Parling (A Buist, 63), R Winter (B Wilson, 55), B Woods.

Referee: W Barnes (London).

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