Leicester 39 Newcastle 5: Wilkinson shows little rust after Kay tests mettle

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The Independent Online

Following an extraordinary afternoon at Welford Road, Jonny Wilkinson spent the best part of an hour signing autographs for the young hunters, nearly all of whom were Tigers' supporters. "I felt good," he said, "but I don't think I'll be in the 22." The 22 in question, the England team and replacements to play Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday, will be announced today.

The chosen one may well be right but, all the same, Brian Ashton, the England head coach, cannot afford to dismiss the temptation out of hand. Why? Because Wilkinson, making his umpteenth comeback - he has not worn the Red Rose jersey since dropping that World Cup-winning goal in Sydney on 22 November 2003 - emerged unscathed from Newcastle's mauling here and he did not only feel good, he looked good.

When he appeared just before half-time he slotted in at No 10, displacing Toby Flood, who moved to midfield, and Wilkinson did not play like a man wearing a layer of rust. Flood, who featured in the disastrous autumn programme after injury took out Charlie Hodgson, is expected to be named as the England stand-off, with the debutant Andy Farrell at centre.

"Jonny's ready to play," John Fletcher, the Newcastle coach, said, "but do they want to give him more game time? They have to decide whether he's done enough contact and collision work."

Here Wilkinson survived a shuddering collision with his World Cup team-mate Ben Kay at a ruck. "I honestly didn't know it was Jonny," Kay said, with a grin. "For an awful moment I thought I'd be the most hated man in England." Kay asked if he was OK. Wilkinson replied: "I thought you'd knocked me out."

Newcastle were fighting a lost cause. Fletcher had said beforehand: " I'm a huge admirer of Leicester. They have an incredible squad with such depth of talent." Even so, he did not expect a five-try hammering from Leicester's second string. The Falcons had won five of their last six matches, including a 31-29 victory over the Tigers at Kingston Park. This was payback.

After their magnificent triumph over Munster in Limerick, Leicester rested their heroes. Yet there were trademark tries of the rolling maul variety for Shane Jennings, Jordan Crane and Marcos Ayerza and two near the end for Tom Varndell. With a bonus point here and a third of the campaign to go, Leicester are looking to scale the twin peaks of Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup.

Leicester: Tries Jennings, Crane, Ayerza, Varndell 2; Conversions Burke 3, Humphreys; Penalties Humphreys 2. Newcastle: Try Elliott.

Leicester: J Murphy; L Lloyd (A Tuilagi, 61), S Rabeni, S Vesty, T Varndell; P Burke (I Humphreys, 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).

* All Blacks inside centre Aaron Mauger said last night he has signed to play for Leicester from December. The 38-Test veteran has signed a two-and-a-half year deal with the Tigers.