Wilkinson on the pitch and on target

Edinburgh 10 - Newcastle 13
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The Independent Online

The last time Jonny Wilkinson parked his backside on the visitors' bench at Murrayfield, it remained firmly planted there. Back in March 1998, three days before his Premiership debut for Newcastle and a fortnight before his official England baptism against Ireland at Twickenham, he was an unused 18-year-old replacement on Calcutta Cup day in the Scottish capital. Last night the former boy wonder was released from bench duty at half-time - and wasted little time in getting back into the groove.

With one mighty swing of that left boot eight weeks and 40 minutes of frustration were released as England's captain-in-waiting landed a penalty from 25 metres out, wide on the right. It was Wilkinson's first kick but not his first purposeful touch of this Heineken Cup Pool Five contest, having launched the move that forced the penalty with a fine floated pass out to Michael Stephenson. It was followed by some other assured touches by Newcastle's No 21, not least the conversion from the opposite side of the pitch that sealed a comeback victory for Rob Andrew's men in the penultimate minute of regulation time.

It was Matt Burke's astute chip into the left corner and Stephenson's touchdown that put victory in the clutches of the Falcons but it was the half-time introduction of Wilkinson, for Dave Walder, that gave them the momentum to turn the tide. They needed some desperate injury-time defending to hold on to their three-point advantage but at the final whistle the Geordies, who out-shouted and seemed to outnumber the locals in the paltry Murrayfield crowd, were celebrating.

Wilkinson strode to the East Stand to return their applause. After two months out with a biceps injury, he was happy to be back in the thick of the action. He had much about which to be happy, too. A crunching tackle on Ben MacDougall suggested that the outgoing BBC Sports Personality of the Year is physically equipped for the cut and thrust of top-class action once again.

The poor Edinburgh centre was shunted unceremoniously backwards, just when he had a chance to cut loose for the first time. While the focus of English attention was naturally on Wilkinson, Scottish eyes were very much trained on MacDougall, who was making his first start not just for Edinburgh but for himself as a senior rugby union player. Signed from the Melbourne Storm rugby league club on the proceeds of Scotland's extra autumn Test against the Wallabies, the 27-year-old Australian last lined up for a 15-man game as a schoolboy.

Blessed with Caledonian grandparentage, and apparently promoted to the Edinburgh starting XV at the behest of the Scotland coach, Matt Williams, MacDougall's stay in the Scottish capital has not exactly been a happy one, the fact having come to light after his arrival that he served a 22-match suspension in rugby league after testing positive for excessive levels of testosterone in 1998. He had little chance to make an impact last night as Edinburgh sought to turn the screw up front.

Midway through the first-half they were turning it with a vengeance. Todd Blackadder and his fellow forwards subjected the Newcastle pack to such a rolling and mauling that Marius Hurter departed to the sin-bin for one piece of spoiling too many, and in the 23rd minute the pressure told as David Callam peeled off the back of a close range-scrum to claim the opening score.

Chris Paterson converted, but Edinburgh were unable to press home their advantage further before Hurter returned and Wilkinson rose from the bench to galvanise the faltering Falcons.

Edinburgh: H Southwell; C Paterson (M Dey, 72), M di Rollo, B MacDougall, C Joiner; B Laney (P Godman, 50), M Blair (R Lawson, 51); A Jacobsen (C Smith, 70), D Hall, C Smith (A Dickinson, 54), F Pringle (S Murray, 28-38), A Kellock (Murray, 50), T Blackadder (capt), A Hogg, D Callam (A Strokosch, 75).

Newcastle: M Burke; T May, J Noon (capt), M Mayerhofler (E Taione, 74), M Stephenson; D Walder (J Wilkinson, 40), J Grindal (H Charlton, 56); J Isaacson, A Long (M Thompson, 50), M Hurter (M Ward, 62), A Buist, C Hamilton (S Grimes, 51), M McCarthy (M Ward, 19-30), P Dowson (S Sititi, 74), C Charvis.

Referee: D Mené (France).

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