Wilkinson's sharp return good news for Lions

Newcastle 23 - London Irish 16
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The Independent Online

When the dust eventually settled at the end of an afternoon of relegation gloom, still standing was Jonny Wilkinson; and standing tall at that.

After a myriad of injury problems, Wilkinson was making his first Premiership start for seven weeks. With no apparent diminution of his appetite for mixing it with big boys, not to mention his kicking skills, which were as sharp as ever, Wilkinson played a major part in guiding Newcastle towards a place in next weekend's wildcard semi-finals. If Sir Clive Woodward does not take him to New Zealand with the Lions, they should not go. Wilkinson, when fully fit, is head and shoulders above any other British or Irish fly-half.

Woodward was not at Kingston Park on Saturday. Had he been, his next visit would have been to the travel agents to see that space is made for Wilkinson on the flight south later this month. The space Wilkinson made up the right channel, when he delivered a centimetre-perfect overhead pass for Matt Burke to score Newcastle's only try, set him apart. It was a rare moment of rugby beauty.

Almost as compelling were his six penalties, which took the game away from London Irish. He missed twice, with a difficult conversion and a penalty from 50 metres. Everything else he attempted, he delivered.

"What Jonny needs now is some game time," said Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew. "He isn't quite at his best yet." Not that anyone noticed.

Wilkinson or no, Irish could have won and, if they had played with the freedom they displayed in the opening quarter, they would have done. Within six minutes they scored a spanking try when Keiron Dawson started a move which ended with Delon Armitage in at the corner. They nearly scored twice more, but first Nils Mordt and then Michael Horak crossed the line only to be held up. Irish then mutated back into the unimaginative side they have been all season.

Barry Everitt notched a conversion and three penalties, but Wilkinson took over and it was as well that the result had no bearing on the relegation issue.

Newcastle: Try Burke; Penalties Wilkinson 6. London Irish: Try Armitage; Conversion Everitt Penalties Everitt 3.

Newcastle: M Burke; T May, J Noon, M Mayerhofler, M Tait; J Wilkinson, H Charlton (J Grindal, 60); G Alvarez Quinones (M Ward, 62), M Thompson (A Long, 46), M Ward (D Wilson, 34), L Gross (G Parling, 72), S Grimes, C Charvis (capt), C Harris, P Dowson (M McCarthy, 14-21).

London Irish: M Horak; S Staniforth, G Appleford, N Mordt (M Mapletoft, 68; P Murphy, 72), D Armitage; B Everitt, P Hodgson; N Hatley, A Flavin, R Hardwick, R Strudwick (capt), B Casey, P Gustard, (K Roche, 31) K Dawson, R Reid.

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).