Wilkinson's late thrust proves decisive in duel with Hodgson

Newcastle 30 - Sale 29
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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson received the sort of welcome yesterday at a sold-out Kingston Park that no one has been granted on Tyneside since Michael Caine arrived to play the lead in Get Carter. By the conclusion of a fabulous game Wilkinson's name was up in lights as he scored the winning try. His conversion, after cutting a fine line and taking full advantage of a slip by Chris Rhys Jones in the fifth minute of stoppage time, was a formality and keeps Newcastle in the group chasing Leicester.

Although it was Wilkinson's first start since October, he played as if he had never been away. The supposed contest with Charlie Hodgson for the England No 10 shirt is a no-contest, according to Newcastle's director of rugby Rob Andrew.

"Charlie is a very, very good player," he said. "Jonny is a great player. And some of the stuff that has been written recently has been ill-informed and way wide of the mark." Andrew also acknowledged the part played by Mathew Tait, for whom stardom is predicted. "He is fine talent," he said. "You saw by the way he went round Jos Baxendell then bounced Jason Robinson out of the way that he is something special".

Having been so embarrassingly weak in attempting to tackle Tait, Robinson was determined to make amends. With the whole of the Sale team in front of him, not to mention all of Newcastle, he bobbed and weaved like a highly charged electric grasshopper. There was no way of stopping the Sale full-back scoring a try of such coruscating brilliance that it took the breath away. Even the home fans applauded.

That took the score to 16-10 in Sale's favour, Hodgson having kicked the first three of his five penalties and the conversion of Robinson's dazzling score. Wilkinson had contributed a terrific conversion from the left touchline and across a swirling wind, and one penalty. Another soon followed and then a third exceptional try, scored this time by Jamie Noon just a few feet from where Tait had crossed. Wilkinson obliged with the conversion, but Hodgson pulled Sale back to 20-19 at the break.

The lead changed hands for the fourth time when Hodgson gifted Robinson a sweet, short pass for a neat try. Hodgson converted and kicked the last of his penalties, before Wilkinson brought the difference to six points with his third penalty.

The Sale forwards appeared to have the final say, their pick-and-drive tactics, led splendidly by the charging Sébastien Chabal, keeping Newcastle on the back foot for long periods. With the final whistle only moments away, it seemed as if Newcastle's only reward would be a losing bonus point. But the Falcons have a star of their own, one Jonny Wilkinson.

Newcastle: Tries Tait, Noon, Wilkinson; Conversions Wilkinson 3; Penalties Wilkinson 3. Sale: Tries Robinson 2; Conversions Hodgson 2; Penalties Hodgson 5.

Newcastle: D Walder (J Shaw, 55); T May, M Tait, J Noon, M Stephenson; J Wilkinson (co-capt), H Charlton (J Grindal, 62); I Peel (co-capt; J Isaacson, 29), A Long, M Ward (Peel, 55), A Buist (L Gross, 67), S Grimes, P Dowson, C Charvis, C Harris (M McCarthy, 69).

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, J Baxendell, R Todd (C Rhys Jones, 27), S Hanley; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; A Sheridan, A Titterrell (M Lund, 76), B Stewart (S Turner, 52), C Jones (C Day, 72), D Schofield, J White, S Chabal, J Carter (S Bruno, 49)

Referee: T Spreadbury (Somerset).

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