Northampton 25 Newcastle 23: Wilkinson misses prove costly for Newcastle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Well before the start of this gripping match it was being billed as Carlos Spencer v Jonny Wilkinson. Given that the Newcastle outside-half stole a smart try, which he then converted, Wilkinson had the edge. With a shade more steadiness when kicking off the floor, he might have won the match as well, but he kicked only one conversion while Bruce Reihana was successful with two.

This was not, in the end, about Spencer v Wilkinson; in the first half it was about a gifted set of backs being set about by the Northampton forwards. Somehow the Newcastle eight pulled themselves together, and after the break they were allowed to set their backs free. It provided a fascinating afternoon's rugby.

In no time the Newcastle forwards were taking a backward step. At the first scrum they were driven off the ball - they were screwed at the second and they faced a very difficult afternoon. Then, from a five-metre scrum, the pressure returned and David Quinlan, the big Saints centre, crossed easily. Reihana converted. After 19 minutes, the Falcons were 10-0 adrift.

Their fly-half, Toby Flood, then made a slashing break but Jamie Noon, who had been treated for an injury earlier, dropped the pass and the chance was lost. Newcastle were not going to benefit by many moments of this sort, and they knew it. When Wilkinson kicked a penalty there was some relief.

Northampton, on the other hand, were playing with increased confidence. They had the chance to repeat their earlier five-metre scrum, and at first it looked as if they would, though somehow the Falcons saved the difficulty. After a long period when the away defence was tested again, Reihana kicked a second penalty. With the last play of the half, Wilkinson kicked a long-range penalty to make it 13-6.

Reihana missed with the opportunity to make that 16-6 before the Falcons made the next five minutes their own. Anthony Elliott was first to cross, in the left corner and beating Reihana, and then Wilkinson sped over for his own try. He converted the second but missed the first, so the score became 18-13 to the visitors.

The scrum-half Mark Robinson was then the beneficiary of a long period of Northampton scrums on the Newcastle line, crossing for a try which Reihana failed to convert.

The excitement continued. First Ben Woods got a try, then Ben Cohen scored one for the home side, which Reihana converted. There was still more to come. With time running out Wilkinson was wide with a penalty attempt, and then Flood fluffed a dropped goal. The Northampton faithful could hardly believe their luck.

Having dominated the first half before conceding three tries after the break, it was left to the home captain, Reihana, to seal the victory with the conversion of Cohen's try. Before the Saints get carried away, they will need to find some backs.

Northampton: Tries Quinlan, Robinson, Cohen; Conversions Reihana 2; Penalties Reihana 2. Newcastle: Tries Elliott, Wilkinson, Woods; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 2.

Northampton: B Reihana (capt); S Lamont, J Clarke (R Kydd, 26), D Quinlan, B Cohen; C Spencer, J Howard (M Robinson, 56); T Smith, S Thompson, C Budgen (S Emms, 69), D Browne (M Lord, 54), C Short, P Tupai (M Hopley, 69), D Fox, M Easter.

Newcastle: M Burke (capt); T May, J Noon, T Flood, A Elliott (J Rudd, 74); J Wilkinson, H Charlton (J Grindal, 60); M Ward (J Golding, 60), A Long (D Thompson, 60), D Wilson (R Morris, 40), A Perry, A Buist, B Wilson (M McCarthy, 54), B Woods, P Dowson.

Referee: R Debney (Leicester).