Wilkinson's injury curse strikes again

Perpignan 33 - Newcastle 12
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The Independent Online

The uniquely depressing sight of Jonny Wilkinson being helped, injured, from the field was a most unwanted footnote to a chastening rite of passage for Newcastle's emerging team. Wilkinson's left boot was in fine form, contributing all his side's points in a losing cause, but a damaged knee did for the England captain-in-waiting with a little more than 10 minutes remaining.

Newcastle retreated to consider the latest medical bulletin on their prized asset, who left on crutches to undergo a scan at a specially opened local clinic,. accompanied by club doctor Andrew Ramshaw. An MRI scan showed a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament - not as serious as a cruciate injury, but still entailing a four-to-six week rehabilitation, which will rule him out of England's first two Six Nations matches at least. The injury will be iced and compressed over the weekend and Wilkinson expects to see an orthopedic surgeon for further analysis tomorrow.

Wilkinson was five matches, and two starts, into what might be called his second coming of the season, having missed most of the autumn with a haematoma in the biceps. Before that, there was a nine-month lay-off to rectify a nerve problem near the spine. No other player induces the same involuntary intake of breath from observers when he goes to ground, and though Wilkinson got up after taking the ball into contact and falling awkwardly under the challenge of three or four opponents in the 68th minute, he was unable to continue.

With Jamie Noon, a strong candidate for inclusion in the centre in the Six Nations' Championship, removed from the action by a clash of heads earlier on, it was bad news all round for club and country.

The packed-out Stade Aimé Giral gave Wilkinson a standing ovation as he was carried off - somewhat ironically given their booing of his every previous move - and then greeted ecstatically the bonus-point try scored in added time by Jan-Gideon van den Heever.

Newcastle were aware that this was no place for the faint-hearted. Perpignan have not lost a domestic match here in 18 months, although Wasps prevailed in last season's Heineken Cup on their way to It is a venue where weaknesses are exposed and, equally, where genuine quality may find its epiphany. In short, it is either a character-building experience or one to put you off foreign travel for life.

That last sentiment was echoed by a white-faced Andrew and his chairman, Dave Thompson, who claimed to have suffered a "near-miss" on their flight over on Thursday, although the airline, Easyjet, denied anything untoward had taken place. Noon delayed his journey to be with his heavily pregnant wife for a hospital scan.

Hardly the ideal preparation, then, and though the first half finished with the scores level 9-9, all the important signs pointed Perpignan's way. When Noon ran into the Perpignan second row Colin Gaston both men went off - Gaston with a nasty cut, but Noon the groggier-looking. Wilkinson had given the rallying cry in the pre-match huddle but it was nothing like the catcalling which accompanied his shots at the posts.

Unlike some of his more callow colleagues, however, Wilkinson has seen and done most things, and three penalties out of three sailed between the posts while Manny Edmonds missed one from four for Perpignan.

But Perpignan were vastly more proficient at getting across the gainline, with Edmonds, the Australian, capitalising on his forwards' superiority to work his speedy centres into space or launch clever punts to the wings. At times it was all Newcastle could do to hold the hosts' scrum, and Colin Charvis took all manner of punishment on the floor at the rucks.

The dam was waiting to burst, and in conceding three tries in the opening 22 minutes of the second half Newcastle got soaked. The first and third went to the gangly Argentinian lock Rimas Alvarez-Kairelis, both of them from close range after Perpignan's backs had stretched Newcastle's defence beyond snapping point. In between, the squat figure of the hooker Nicolas Mas finished up with a try at the bottom of a line-out drive.

The Falcons' bigger forwards were never able to punch their weight, but the four previous pool wins meant at least this was not the knockout blow.

Perpignan: F Cermeno (D Giannantonio, 68); P Bomati, D Marty (C Manas, 72), J-P Grandclaude, D Luger; M Edmonds, N Durand (L Loustau, 75); P Freshwater (V Debaty, 63), N Grelon (J-G van den Heever, 68), N Mas, C Gaston (C Porçu, 32-39, 40), R Alvarez Kairelis, G le Corvec (J Labat, 75), S Robertson, B Goutta (capt).

Newcastle Falcons: J Shaw; T May, M Tait, J Noon (M Mayerhofler, 32), M Stephenson; J Wilkinson (co-capt; M Wilkinson, 69), J Grindal (H Charlton, 60); I Peel (co-capt; J Isaacson, 51), A Long (M Thompson, 78), M Ward, L Gross (A Buist, 51; S Sititi, 73), S Grimes, M McCarthy, P Dowson, C Charvis.

Referee: N Williams (Wales).