With or without Jonny Wilkinson, Newcastle are marching on Twickenham again. The 2001 cup winners made a fine effort at clearing eight inches of overnight snow from the Kingston Park pitch, and were rewarded for getting the game on with a semi-final back here in a fortnight after a try in each half by Stuart Grimes and Dave Walder.
A couple of mechanical earth-movers combined with a team of volunteers to clear the snow off the £80,000 plastic cover which more than repaid itself, with BBC television cameras on hand for live coverage, and 800 corporate bookings awaiting in the lunch rooms. The north terrace was given up as a bad job but otherwise it was all systems go.
Wilkinson was in attendance for the first time as a freeman of the city of Newcastle, the honour bestowed on the injured World Cup winner on Friday in a civic ceremony. Earlier in the week, the fêted fly-half had mucked in with a couple of defensive coaching sessions at the club he joined in 1997, and first represented at senior level in a cup tie against Exeter in January 1998. How much of a difference he made is a moot point but London Irish, England's most consistent cup side having, uniquely, reached the quarter-finals in each of the last seven seasons, regularly had their sweeping attacks cut down by Newcastle at crucial moments.
Irish were not helped by a troublesome journey. Choosing to fly from London yesterday morning was always a risk, and with Newcastle airport closed, they switched to a flight to Edinburgh, and ended up with a two and a half hour coach ride through the Borders. Just one more case, perhaps, of the Irish knowing where they were going, but starting from the wrong place.
So the visitors arrived with 40 minutes to spare before kick-off - and had a request for a delayed start turned down by the BBC - and without their left wing, Justin Bishop, who cried off with travel sickness. Their relief in finally taking the field was shown in some enterprising play in the opening stages, as they forced Newcastle back without getting the points they merited. Instead, the respective fly-halves Walder and Mark Mapletoft traded penalties to make it 6-6 with 23 minutes gone.
Then a brief snowstorm, blowing into Irish's faces, appeared to galvanise Newcastle. On the half-hour, a wheeled scrum on Irish's put-in gave Newcastle an attacking platform close to their opponents' 22. The Falcons worked through the phases right then left, with one wing, Epi Taione, acting as dummy scrum-half at one ruck, and the other, Tom May, doing well to keep the move going. Wide to the left, Warren Britz made a half-break to add some impetus and the flanker's pass sent the supporting Grimes behind the posts for Walder to convert.
Another penalty apiece for Mapletoft and Walder took Newcastle in at half-time 16-9 to the good, and out came Wilkinson, braving another wintry flurry, to make a presentation for the cup sponsors.
Newcastle's chairman, Dave Thompson, said in the programme that the club needed to "win titles" to keep Wilkinson in his adopted north-east. The chances of Powergen silverware improved with Walder's try six minutes after the break.
Rob Hoadley and Geoff Appleford got into a pickle as Irish tried to move the ball on halfway, and Newcastle's loosehead prop, Ian Peel, popped a pass neatly out to Taione. The Tongan wing, never adequately dealt with by Irish throughout, set off down the left, bouncing off Ryan Strudwick and Paul Sackey before offloading to Walder on the outside.
Though Mapletoft put over a penalty for a blatant stamp by Garath Archer on Bob Casey, which earned the Newcastle lock a yellow card, Walder had Newcastle safe with a dropped goal 14 minutes from time. A thicket of supporters was forming a queue immediately after the final whistle - not for Wilkinson's autograph, for a change, but for tickets for the last-four tie against the winners of today's Wasps v Pertemps Bees quarter-final.
Newcastle: D Lilley (J Shaw, 52); T May, J Noon, M Mayerhofler, E Taione; D Walder, H Charlton; I Peel (M Hurter, 61), M Thompson (N Makin, 35), M Hurter (M Ward, 35), G Archer (C Hamilton, 61), S Grimes, J Dunbar (P Dowson, 61), H Vyvyan, W Britz.
London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley, D Armitage; M Mapletoft (B Everitt, 52), D Edwards (K Barrett, 73); N Hatley, N Drotkse, D Wheatley (R Hardwick, 73), R Strudwick (capt), B Casey, D Danaher, C Sheasby (P Murphy, 67), K Dawson (P Gustard, 67).
Referee: T Spreadbury (Somerset).