Worcester 35 Newcastle 27: Falcons pay penalty for wayward kicking

Wilkinson shows welcome form as Worcester shade nine-try thriller
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The Independent Online

Two seasons ago Worcester, freshly promoted, made their Premiership debut here against Newcastle and one Jonny Wilkinson, national hero and World Cup winner. Worcester lost 30-9 and Wilkinson spent an hour signing autographs. That was before his career took so many hits it was feared he would never be the same again.

Yesterday Jonny was back at Sixways although the circumstances were somewhat different. He is launching his umpteenth comeback and, apart from one scary moment when he looked as if he had re-injured a leg, he couldn't have chosen a more eventful and dramatic match in which to remind England that he may, after all, fancy a return to Australia next month with the Red Rose brigade.

Forget it. Newcastle's director of rugby, Rob Andrew, won't allow it. "The last thing Jonny needs is international rugby at this time," Andrew said. "It's out of the question. He's still very sore and we've got to manage him properly. This is not about England being in a hole and needing him this summer. We need him to be playing in five years time. It was a mistake taking him on the Lions tour. This time we've got to get it right."

This was not only a tremendous advert for rugby (with a firm pitch beneath their feet and the sun on their backs, the players produced nine tries), it also enabled Worcester to provide a persuasive argument that critics of promotion and relegation do not have a leg to stand on.

Wilkinson, who came on for the second half, did not look as if he could stand on his right leg after taking a heavy tackle. He limped around, causing the medics, who are on red alert whenever he's on the field, to fuss around him like maiden aunts with a favourite nephew. He brushed them aside and was sharp enough to play a key role in Newcastle's comeback. "We scored five tries to four, converted only one, and dropped the ball over the line, so to come away with only one point is pretty hard to take," Andrew said.

Indeed, but Worcester, who had a lean time of it after Christmas, were hell bent on winning and did so in such style that the five points from this victory - by three goals, a try and three penalties to a goal and four tries - have given them a slender chance of gatecrashing next season's Heineken Cup.

Worcester were in their stride by the 11th minute when Kai Horstmann went over on the right wing after good work by Nick Runciman and Shane Drahm. Matthew Burke, whose afternoon lurched from brilliant to awful, kicked his re-start too long and Worcester ran it back to dazzling effect, Gary Trueman crashing through Burke to make it 12-0.

It was typical of the home side's performance and although on paper Newcastle have one of the best back lines in the league, Worcester set the pace with strong, direct running and great support play. If they were terrific the visitors, especially in the second half, were not far behind.

They might not have finished behind at all but for Jamie Noon knocking on over the line after a classic outside break by Mathew Tait. That, and the fact that Worcester got 15 points from the boot and Newcastle just two. Burke and Wilkinson, two of the biggest scorers in world rugby, failed with everything bar one conversion. The scoring extravaganza was given added impetus by yellow cards for Runciman and Tait, and whenever Newcastle threatened to close the gap, the home side, slightly hungrier and therefore winners of almost every 50-50 ball, responded in hit-and-run fashion.

Toby Flood scored a try and Worcester replied with a cracker from Pat Sanderson to lead 25-7 at half time. Jonny came marching on, Drahm limped off and the game changed. Burke ran in two excellent tries and Mike McCarthy and Tom May also went over. Worcester, though, had done enough, Runciman's try earning a bonus point. And Jonny is becoming more philosophical. "I've bitten off more than I could chew with some of my comebacks. The goalposts are still in the same place and I'm still after the same dream."

Worcester: T Delport; U Oduoza, D Rasmussen (S Whatling, 80), T Lombard, G Trueman; S Drahm (J Brown, 40), N Runciman; T Windo (M Macdonald, 51), C Fortey (A van Niekerk, 80), L Fortey, P Murphy, C Gillies (E O'Donaghue, 68), P Sanderson (capt), K Horstmann, T Harding (D Hickey, 56).

Newcastle: M Burke (capt); T May, M Tait, J Noon, O Philips; T Flood (J Wilkinson, 40), H Charlton (J Grindal, 52); J Williams (M Ward, 40), M Thompson (A Long, 52), R Morris, A Perry (L Gross, 80), G Parling, M McCarthy, B Woods, C Harris.

Referee: A Rowden (Berkshire).