Jonny Wilkinson’s injury jinx struck once again to leave Newcastle and England fretting over his fitness.
Wilkinson, whose Test career has been blighted by repeated injury setbacks since his drop-goal won England the 2003 World Cup, lasted just 25 minutes at Kingsholm as Gloucester posted a bonus-point 39-23 GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP victory.
He was helped away after appearing to hurt his knee when he was cleared out of a ruck which formed following a trademark Wilkinson tackle on Gloucester full-back Olly Morgan.
The initial signs did not look good, with 29-year-old Wilkinson in clear discomfort as he departed the action less than six weeks before England launch Martin Johnson’s managerial era against the Pacific Islanders.
Danny Cipriani, who ended last season’s RBS 6 Nations Championship in possession of the England number 10 shirt, is not due to begin his comeback from an horrific ankle injury until Wednesday night.
Cipriani was not even named in the 32-man elite England squad earlier this year, given an anticipated recovery timescale of six months, and although the Wasps star is back way ahead of schedule, Johnson could still face a fly-half conundrum.
Cipriani, given his long-term injury absence, was selected among the second-tier England Saxons squad, while Wilkinson started only a fourth match of the campaign after summer shoulder surgery.
On the field, Newcastle battled bravely without their talisman as Gloucester struggled to impose themselves on the contest until late on.
The Falcons were ultimately undone by Gloucester wing Iain Balshaw’s hat-trick of tries and a late James Simpson-Daniel double, while fly-half Olly Barkley – an England autumn Test contender – booted four penalties and Willie Walker slotted a late conversion.
Hooker Matt Thompson’s opportunist 47th-minute touchdown from a lineout and centre Tom May’s breakaway score briefly cut the Gloucester advantage to just three points.
The Falcons finally wilted when Balshaw completed his hat-trick 13 minutes from time, although Newcastle still had enough about them to register a third try when captain Phil Dowson went over.
Wilkinson kicked a penalty, as did his replacement Rory Clegg, who also converted Dowson’s score.
Barkley started his first game at fly-half for Gloucester since joining them from west country rivals Bath during the summer, and there was no place in the 22 for the player he replaced – Ryan Lamb.
But Newcastle, not noted for consistent away form, went ahead inside a minute when Wilkinson found his range from 52 metres – the 14th successive goal-kick he has landed this season.
Gloucester, stung into action, responded with a slick handling move that only floundered when full-back Olly Morgan knocked on with the line at his mercy.
It was the cue though, for Wilkinson to threaten Gloucester’s defence with ball in hand, slicing through on a half-break before unleashing a bullet-type pass that almost unlocked the home defence.
Gloucester kept the Falcons out, and their response had Newcastle in all kinds of strife as the home side utilised their blistering pace brilliantly.
Simpson-Daniel made a telling midfield thrust, and he found Morgan in support, whose pass freed Balshaw to finish off a high-class move.
Barkley was narrowly wide with the touchline conversion attempt, and matters quickly deteriorated from a Newcastle perspective as Wilkinson limped out of the action just five minutes later.
Newcastle full-back Steve Jones missed a penalty while Wilkinson was being treated, before England’s record points scorer was led away to the changing rooms.
Clegg cut the gap with a penalty, but Barkley then missed a straightforward 25-metre chance as a half frequently punctuated by referee David Rose’s whistle drew towards its close.
Gloucester still had enough time to register a second Balshaw try after centre Mike Tindall made the hard yards, with Newcastle suffering another injury setback during the build-up.
Falcons’ former Gloucester back-row forward Adam Balding followed Wilkinson in making an early exit, with Russell Winter replacing him.
And Barkley ensured a 10-point interval advantage by booting an injury-time penalty, although it was just his second successful kick from five attempts.
It was an erratic display by Gloucester though, and tries in quick succession for Thompson and May maintained a healthy Newcastle interest before Barkley’s boot and a third Balshaw touchdown forced Newcastle into submission.