The efforts of Jonny Wilkinson were not enough to inspire Newcastle Falcons to victory in their first GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP game under new boss John Fletcher as Northampton Saintsedged an engaging encounter at Franklin’s Gardens.
Wilkinson contributed 13 points, including a second-half try, as Newcastle recovered from 13-3 down just before the interval to take an 18-13 lead. But he missed a late penalty three minutes from time that would have sealed the victory and Newcastle had to settle for a losing bonus point. Northampton had stormed ahead on the back of dominant forwards performance in the first half that led to directly to a try for David Quinlan.
Newcastle hit back with excellent tries from Anthony Elliott and Wilkinson before Northampton’s replacement scrum-half Mark Robinson levelled the scores. The Saints then infuriated coach Budge Pountney by conceding again, this time to Newcastle flanker Ben Woods, before drawing level with a good finish from Ben Cohen.
Bruce Reihana’s superb touch-line conversion earned Northampton the edge – and it proved to be the winning kick after Wilkinson’s late penalty attempt flew wide. Newcastle are adapting to life under Fletcher, the former academy coach who was promoted to the top job after Rob Andrew was appointed England’s director of elite rugby. Wilkinson was Andrew’s protege but, like the club, he is having to make a new start after three years hounded by injury. At the start of a season which culminates next September in England’s World Cup defence, Wilkinson’s all-round game was sharp. He is fully fit, he looks well conditioned and he was typically physical in defence.
Going forward Newcastle are able to mix their point of attack by including Wilkinson and England Under-21 international Toby Flood as twin playmakers. It was extremely effective after half-time. But they had little chance to create anything in the first 40 minutes as Northampton’s powerful forward pack dominated. Newcastle were scrummaged off their own ball as early as the third minute and it set a worrying pattern for Fletcher. The Falcons lineout was also under the cosh and they conceded a 10th-minute penalty after losing their own ball that Reihana comfortably converted.
After spurning a penalty shot earned after another powerful lineout drive, Northampton demolished Newcastle’s own five-metre scrum. The Falcons pack splintered, allowing Northampton to quickly move the ball and Quinlan powered over for a try next to the posts. Newcastle’s best moment of the first half was a break from Flood but they remained in the hunt with two long-range penalties from Wilkinson reducing Northampton’s half-time lead to 13-6. And the Falcons built on that with a blistering start to the second period, scoring two magnificent tries within six minutes of the restart.
New Zealand flanker Brent Wilson, impressive on his Newcastle debut, made the break and Woods flicked the ball outside for winger Elliott to finish in the corner. Barely four minutes later Flood burst on to a pass from Noon and escaped 30 metres through the Northampton defence. He was scragged just short of the line but Wilkinson was on his shoulder and took the popped pass to dive over for the try. The successful conversion moved Newcastle 18-13 ahead but they could not withstand Northampton’s immediate and brutal response.
The Saints pack were denied once by the video referee but they heaved Newcastle back from the resultant five-metre scrum and Robinson, only just on as a replacement, dived over. Reihana’s conversion was missed and with the scores tied at 18-18 the game opened up with Wilkinson becoming increasingly influential. He almost escaped through for a second score and quick ball allowed Newcastle to spread play wide right, where Woods was on hand to score in the corner. But Wilkinson missed the conversion and Northampton hit back again with Cohen applying a magnificent finish in the right corner. Reihana had created the opening and, as it turned out, then landed the match-winning kick as Northampton survived for a hard-fought victory.