Wilkinson withers Leeds

Leeds 9 Newcastle 19
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The Independent Online

They have been playing 13-a-side rugby at Headingley for a century; though under league rules. Yesterday, there was just five minutes of union when both sides were down to 13 and it was enough to decide the tightest of matches. With Leeds only able to muster six forwards, Newcastle won a penalty five metres from the home line. A scrum seemed the obvious call. But Newcastle, with seven forwards on the field, opted for a line-out, and Stuart Grimes was driven over for the only try of the game.

If that was the decisive score, Jonny Wilkinson's conversion from the left touchline almost left Leeds for dead. To rub it in, the England outside-half then ran the rest of the game with a virtual tactical masterclass as he pinned Leeds deep in their own half on a glutinous surface in pouring rain.

Va'aiga Tuigamala was first to be shown yellow for a deliberate knock-on. Then it got serious as a mass brawl ended with Leeds' hooker, Rob Rawlinson and the Falcons loose-head, Micky Ward being dismissed to the sin-bin. This lot all happened just before the break, with Newcastle leading 12-9. No sooner had the game restarted than Rawlinson's replacement, Matt Holt, was sent to the sin-bin for killing the ball.

There was no way back from there and, while Leeds can draw comfort from having played two fewer games than Harlequins, the rest of the season is going to be one long dogfight. If Quins do not put some daylight between themselves and the Yorkshire club, it could all come down to their meeting at The Stoop on the penultimate Premiership weekend, in May.

The nature of this contest was defined in the second minute when Tuigamala and Leeds' debutant centre, Japie Mulder, collided with a force that shook the grandstands. Mulder's intention was to clatter anything that moved, and the next Newcastle player to receive the full Springbok treatment was Tom May. Leeds meant business.

With mistakes inevitable in worsening conditions, it was not long before the kickers were in business. First up it was Wilkinson, though Braam van Straaten wasn't far behind him, as the first 30 minutes became a penalty practice session between two of the best in the modern game.

By the interval it was 4-3 to the Englishman, with the only sight of a try being spoiled when Chris Hall spilled a pass with the line at his mercy. It was not the only chance that Leeds put down, for Craig Emmerson was similarly guilty, and Leeds were to rue their inability to finish off several opportunities to put points on the board. It has been the story of their season.

Leeds: Penalties Van Straaten. Newcastle: Try Grimes; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 4.

Leeds: D Scarbrough; C Hall, T Davies (S Woof, 63), J Mulder, C Emmerson; B van Straaten, S Benton; M Shelley, R Rawlinson, G Kerr, C Murphy (P Murphy, 63), T Palmer, C Hogg (capt), D Hyde (K Fullman, 45), I Feaunati (M Holt, h-t).

Newcastle: D Richardson; L Botham, T May, V Tuigamala, G Maclure (J Noon, 45); J Wilkinson, H Charlton (G Armstrong, 52); M Ward (G Graham, 60), S Brotherstone, M Hurter, H Vyvyan, D Weir (S Grimes, h-t), E Taione, R Arnold (Graham, 41-51), P Lam (capt).

Referee: T Spreadbury (Bristol).