Wilkinson confirms Lions form in defeat

Gloucester 23 - Newcastle 16
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The Independent Online

There are precious few certainties in life, but Jonny Wilkinson can confidently expect to be relieved of his tour duties with England in North America this summer. Why? Because unless something very strange happens, he will be with the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand, getting rucked to kingdom come in three feet of mud.

There are precious few certainties in life, but Jonny Wilkinson can confidently expect to be relieved of his tour duties with England in North America this summer. Why? Because unless something very strange happens, he will be with the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand, getting rucked to kingdom come in three feet of mud.

On the face of it, this is not much of a swap: it is likely to be a whole lot gentler, and infinitely sunnier, in Edmonton next month than it will be in god-forsaken Invercargill. But Wilkinson would happily have spent the next couple of months on Planet Zog had there been a red shirt on offer.

The most celebrated player in world rugby - and also the least visible for much of the 18 months since he dropped the goal that won the World Cup - did everything in his considerable powers yesterday to keep Newcastle in the hunt for Heineken Cup qualification. If he came up marginally short, neither Andy Robinson nor his fellow Lions coach Dave Alred were likely to condemn him.

Wilkinson kicked all his goals bar the last, an absolute pig of a penalty from 53 metres that he underclubbed by approximately an inch and a half, and ran the Tynesiders' back line with the assurance of old. He even wrong-footed Gloucester's midfield with a flurry of Phil Bennett-style sidesteps, which was something of a new departure.

But above all, he defended. So well did he defend that the phrase "ton of bricks" sprang to mind, especially when he wrapped himself around the aggressive Jake Boer, picked him clean off the floor and dumped him firmly on his South African backside. His important early tackle on James Simpson-Daniel was top-notch, his later hits on the freakishly rapid James Forrester better still.

Forrester, a flanker playing out of position at inside-centre because of a Kingsholm injury epidemic, had the last laugh by scoring two tries, but he would be the first to admit that when he entered Wilkinson's orbit, he copped it.

Sir Clive Woodward, the Lions' head coach, had been in either-or mood about Wilkinson for weeks, and when he named his 44-man squad for the trip to All Black country last month, he could not bring himself to include his favourite outside-half in light of his chronic shortage of rugby. Mike Tindall, the Bath centre, and Phil Vickery, the Gloucester prop, found themselves in a similar situation of having to prove themselves, on the basis of form as well as fitness, before being added to the party.

Neither Tindall nor Vickery have put their heads above the parapet, and can be discounted. The other bloke is very definitely playing, however, and will surely receive the summons he craves within the next 48 hours.

Wilkinson has just signed a three-year contract at Kingston Park, waxing lyrical about the tender loving care he receives both from the local supporters and the back-room staff. It certainly appears that Newcastle have handled him brilliantly of late, refusing to rush him back from the latest in a long line of injuries despite the pressure of a Lions deadline. Confident that all would be well if their most valuable asset embraced the virtue of patience and got his timing absolutely right, their contribution to his fortunes has been a model of sympathy and common sense.

Yesterday's game was not a model of anything, although it was exciting enough. Gloucester and Newcastle are not the friendliest of rivals - Rob Andrew, the visitors' director of rugby, is always high on the list of targets for the Kingsholm Shed - so the fixture was bound to carry a sprinkling of cayenne pepper with it, but the form of both clubs towards the end of the regular season had been so depressingly dire that few anticipated much in the way of exhilaration. They were not disappointed in their expectations, but the contest was never anything other than full-blooded.

Much to the delight of the loudmouths on the terraces, Wilkinson fluffed a couple of early clearances. The golden one also entertained them with a fresh addition to his fabled goal-kicking routine. He still thrust his backside towards the touch-line in that peculiarly exaggerated style of his, and continued to crouch in apparent discomfort, as if he were fighting off the ravages of dysentry.

Yesterday, he unveiled a nervous shake of the left leg prior to kicking - a quiver reminiscent of a dog in urgent need of a lamp-post. If it was funny, it was also effective. After a quarter of an hour, Newcastle were three points to the good.

They held that lead until the half-hour mark, when Forrester cut a clever angle near the left touchline, slipped into overdrive in the twinkling of an eye and showed considerable strength to claim the try in the tackles of Tom May and Matthew Burke. Within minutes, however, the latter made amends for whatever error he felt he had committed in failing to prevent Forrester from grounding the ball when he maximised a sharp Newcastle attack orchestrated by Wilkinson, seeing off the attentions of Adam Eustace in the process of registering an important seven-pointer.

Unfortunately for the visitors, their tight forwards gave up the ghost after the interval in the face of repeated onslaughts from Gloucester's old-style pack. Adam Balding, the home captain and No 8, put his side in front four minutes into the second period after some outstanding approach work from Peter Buxton, Gary Powell and the supremely combative Boer, and Forrester's second try on the hour - a straightforward run-in compared to his previous effort - turned the tide once and for all the home side's way.

Two late penalties from the Australian fly-half Duncan McRae, who had been rather less than Wilkinsonesque in the previous 70-odd minutes, finished the job, and if his side beat Saracens in this weekend's wildcard final at Twickenham, they will play Heineken Cup rugby next season.

Gloucester: Tries Forrester 2, Balding; Conversion McRae; Penalties McRae 2. Newcastle: Try Burke; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 3.

Gloucester: B Davies; J Bailey, J Simpson-Daniel, J Forrester, S Kiole (M Foster, 72); D McRae, A Gomarsall; N Wood, M Davies, G Powell (T Sigley, 80), A Eustace, A Brown, J Boer, L Narraway (P Buxton, 43), A Balding (capt).

Newcastle: M Burke; T May, J Noon, M Mayerhofler, M Tait; J Wilkinson, J Grindal (H Charlton, 59); G Alvarez Quinones (Ward, 54), A Long (M Thompson, 59), M Ward (D Wilson, 32; Long 82), L Gross (G Parling, 72), S Grimes, C Charvis (capt), C Harris, P Dowson.

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).