Scarlets stifle Wilkinson to close on semi-finals

Llanelli Scarlets 22 Newcastle 20
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The Independent Online

The England and Lions fly-half had a hand and a foot in both of his side's tries, as well as landing a penalty and two conversions, but it was not enough to win the game.

The late penalty which robbed Newcastle of victory prompted the Falcons' director of rugby, Rob Andrew, to call for neutral referees for these Anglo-Welsh matches. The man in charge yesterday was Nigel Whitehouse from Swansea, a vastly experienced international referee.

Andrew said: "We have to have neutral referees. We were not going to get a penalty at the other end where we could have had three or four. There is too much at stake and it is not fair on English referees in England or Welsh referees in Wales."

Newcastle had arrived needing victory and a four-try bonus point to guarantee a place in the Powergen Cup semi-finals. They left with their ears probably still ringing from the roar that chased Gareth Bowen's 79th-minute penalty between the posts.

The visitors' determination to win was illustrated by the early introduction of Wilkinson. He was sent on before the match was a quarter over, just seconds after the Scarlets had scored their first try. He replaced Toby Flood, who had had the misfortune to allow Regan King to run through him to set up the full-back Lee Byrne for a try.

The Scarlets' forwards dominated, with the hooker Aled Gravelle having a fine match and scoring his team's second try. Their line-out stood up well to the aggressive Falcons pack, their driving maul was magnificent and their captain, Simon Easterby, was superb in the loose and on the ground.

Llanelli still found themselves being pushed and pulled all over the place every time Wilkinson got the ball, but his place-kicking was a little out of kilter - no surprise since he had come on to the field with just 60 minutes of rugby under his belt this season.

He missed his first kick five minutes after coming on and there was a second failure early in the second half. But his fitness could not be doubted, and nor could his hardness.

He did plenty of other things right, including setting up those tries. For the first his delicate crossfield chip allowed the wing Anthony Elliott to gather on the full before racing in untouched; the second saw him deliver a glorious miss-pass to open up a gaping hole which was exploited by Tom May.

Wilkinson's conversion, his second of the match, dragged Newcastle clear by a point. But it was not enough.

Llanelli Scarlets: Tries Byrne, Gravelle, Hercus; Conversions Hercus 2; Penalty Bowen. Newcastle: Tries Elliott, May; Conversions Wilkinson 2; Penalties Burke, Wilkinson.

Llanelli Scarlets: L Byrne; M Jones, D James, R King, T Selley; M Hercus (G Bowen, 67), C Stuart-Smith; I Thomas, A Gravelle (M Rees, 75), J Davies, I Afeaki (C Wyatt, 79), A Jones, S Easterby (capt), J Mills, A Popham.

Newcastle: M Burke; T May, M Tait, M Mayerhofler, A Elliott; T Flood (J Wilkinson, 18), H Charlton; G Anderson (M Ward, 40), M Thompson (A Long, 40), T Paoletti (R Morris, 40), A Perry (L Gross, 72), G Parling, O Finegan, C Harris, C Charvis (capt).

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).