Newcastle man the barricades to repel French marauders

Newcastle 19 - Perpignan 14
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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson, midfield tackler extraordinaire, must have flinched from head to toe throughout the final few minutes of this wonderful contest at Kingston Park, for his bruised and broken body could not have withstood such ferocity. He must have been awash with pride, too. Despite the absence of their captain, who somehow elevated common or garden defensive chores to the status of art during his great days in the England team, Newcastle successfully manned the barricades to repel an increasingly rampant Perpignan side and complete a second straight victory in Europe's élite tournament.

Jonny Wilkinson, midfield tackler extraordinaire, must have flinched from head to toe throughout the final few minutes of this wonderful contest at Kingston Park, for his bruised and broken body could not have withstood such ferocity. He must have been awash with pride, too. Despite the absence of their captain, who somehow elevated common or garden defensive chores to the status of art during his great days in the England team, Newcastle successfully manned the barricades to repel an increasingly rampant Perpignan side and complete a second straight victory in Europe's élite tournament.

The Geordies were seven points to the good by the end of the first quarter and were never headed thereafter, but it was not for the want of Catalonian effort. Bernard Goutta's brick-hard visitors were generally on their best behaviour, apart from one nasty sharp-end spat involving their barn door of a tight-head prop, Nicolas Mas. And by using their heads in the tactical sense as opposed to the illegal one, they stretched their hosts to snapping point in a second half that ran some nine minutes into stoppage time.

Jamie Noon, full of muscular swagger at inside centre, pulled out a try-saving tackle to deny Diego Giannantonio as the clock ticked past the 80, while Colin Charvis, rucked and kicked from one end of Tyneside to the other as he hunted the loose ball with a fearlessness bordering on the reckless, repeatedly turned over prime Perpignan possession on the floor as they mounted their dying assaults. Those Premiership coaches who suspected Newcastle would prioritise the domestic competition at the expense of this tournament can start dining on their words.

For all the efforts of Noon and company, however, the 2003 finalists might easily have pinched it. Vincent Debaty would certainly have scored had Jan-Gideon van den Heever not been penalised for obstruction; Goutta himself thought he had grounded the ball for an equalising try, only to find the referee, Nigel Whitehouse, in two minds on the subject. Whitehouse awarded Perpignan a final five-metre scrum for their trouble - a scrum that amounted to nothing.

Newcastle were full of ideas early on as they sought to move the heavy Perpignan pack around the field. Craig Hamilton enjoyed a golden afternoon at the line-out, and it was his pilfering of Nicolas Grelon's throw on 17 minutes that allowed Charvis to bulldoze upfield with the ball under one arm - a rampage that put the French midfield on the rear foot and allowed the 18-year-old Mathew Tait to show his wares with a quality finish to the left of the posts. Tait is some prospect - Brian Ashton, the director of England's national academy, considers him the best thing since Wilkinson himself - and his performance here was a joy to behold.

Yet Perpignan had ammunition of their own, and plenty of it. Rimas Alvarez Kairelis, their Argentinian lock, has been a top-shelf contributor for some years now, and he was close to his best yesterday. If their line-out was not up to much, their scrum was every bit as aggressive as Newcastle had feared before the game. It was all the Tynesiders could do to hold them, and Rob Andrew, their director of rugby, was forced into regular changes of front-row personnel as his only means of salvation.

Manny Edmonds, that unpredictable outside-half from New South Wales, cut into Newcastle's early lead with a show-and-go try that took him clear of both Matthew Burke and Michael Stephenson - no mean feat, given the positional know-how of the former and the scalding pace of the latter. But Burke's penalties during another fertile period for the home side before the break gave them an eight-point lead, and David Walder's long-range effort five minutes from time cancelled out Giannantonio's riposte.

Ultimately, Perpignan could only chisel out a bonus point through Nicolas Laharrague's drop goal, a three-point return that might easily have been seven but for Noon's magnificent tackle earlier in the move. Such are the narrow margins at this level of the game. Such are the glories of Heineken Cup rugby.

Newcastle: Try Tait; Conversion Burke. Penalties Burke 3, Walder. Perpignan: Try Edmonds; Penalties Edmonds, Giannantonio; Drop goal Laharrague.

Newcastle: M Burke; T May (E Tainoe, 64), M Tait, J Noon, M Stephenson; D Walder, H Charlton (J Grindal, 75); I Peel (capt; J Isaacson h-t, M Thompson, 80), M Thompson (I Peel, 68), M Hurter (M Ward, 52), C Hamilton, S Grimes, M McCarthy (S Sititi, 64), C Charvis, P Dowson.

Perpignan: L Van den Heever (D Giannantonio, 59); P Bomati, D Marty, G Hume (C Manas, h-t), D Luger; M Edmonds (N Laharrague, 76), N Durand (N Laharrague, 59-63); V Debaty, N Grelon (J-G Van den Heever, 76), N Mas (S Chobet, 76), R Alvarez Kairelis, C Porcu (M O'Driscoll, 70), G Le Corvec, B Goutta (capt) (O Tonita, 80), O Tonita (S Robertson, 70).

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).

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