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Wilkinson is sore but happy after comeback
By John Westerby
Newcastle Falcons 32 Sale Sharks 21
Jonny Wilkinson (GETTY)
AS THE referee blew for full time at a sunny Kingston Park yesterday, Jonny Wilkinson stood hunched over, his hands resting on his knees, his head bowed, while his Newcastle Falcons team-mates celebrated around him. Cue a sharp intake of breath from the stands. Surely, in his latest comeback match, he hadn’t suffered yet another injury? A few seconds later, the head was lifted to reveal the broadest of grins. Looking exhausted after his first appearance for five months, he then wandered across and shared hugs with a succession of team-mates. Having come on at half-time and played an impressive part in Newcastle’s revival from a 21-13 deficit, Wilkinson had got his life back.
“I’m a bit sore, as was inevitably going to be the case, but it’s nice to get my life back on track,” he said. “It just feels right to be standing around on a field after a game. It feels the way it always has done.”
When Wilkinson trotted out after half-time, Sale Sharks had been leading 16-13 and the latest comeback did not begin well when Wilkinson was one of three defenders to bounce off Oriol Ripol, the Sale Sharks wing, who scored in the right-hand corner. With the wind at their backs, however, Newcastle gradually assumed control against a weakened Sale side. They went on to score three second-half tries to clinch a victory that lifted them away from the bottom of the table and ensured that Leeds Tykes were relegated.
For his part, Wilkinson was just happy to have come through unscathed, having recovered from the groin injury that had kept him out since November. He fired some sharp passes off his left-hand, kicked a couple of huge touch-finders and even survived a frontal collision with Sébastien Chabal, a test of his robustness if ever there was one.
Just one thing was missing: Wilkinson did not kick at goal. He revealed afterwards that he had forsaken kicking practice over the weekend to protect his groin. Once he was into his stride, he injected greater pace into Newcastle’s play behind the scrum and, in the 54th minute, his meticulous cross-kick towards Anthony Elliott unsettled the Sale defence, before Mike McCarthy brushed aside Jason Robinson to set up Tom May’s first try.
May crossed again after Chabal had attempted a comically inept clearance kick and, when Geoff Parling’s telescopic reach sealed Newcastle’s success, they clinched their first four-try bonus point of the season.
Sale had picked only six first-choice players and their weaknesses were exposed when, in each half, they lost a player to the sin-bin. Eifion Roberts was dispatched when the Sharks’ defence had been stretched by a tap penalty from Mathew Tait and then, in the second half, Sililo Martens’s removal led to Parling’s try.
It was ironic that Charlie Hodgson, the incumbent England fly half, was not around to greet Wilkinson after picking up a knock against Gloucester last week, but he is expected to be fit for Sale’s next game against Bath, as is Mark Cueto.
In keeping with his sunny disposition, Wilkinson even had time to appreciate the weather. “The best thing about today was the enjoyment factor,” he said. “It was a lovely day to be playing rugby.” When you have missed as much rugby as Jonny Wilkinson, you enjoy these things while you can.