03 January 2004
Newcastle Falcons director of rugby, Rob Andrew, paid tribute to his side's persistence after a try deep into injury time from fly half Jonny Wilkinson secured a dramatic 30-29 Zurich Premiership win over Sale Sharks in front of a sell-out Kingston Park crowd.
Having endured a tense finale, culminating in the fly half's score, Andrew said: "It's the same every week in the Zurich Premiership, and with the amount of games that go to the last minute you've got to have a pretty strong constitution. Sometimes you've just got to close your eyes and wait for the final whistle.
"It was great considering the conditions, and when have we not had a great game against Sale? We've had some phenomenal matches with them, and as always, you just have to keep playing."
Summing up the game as a whole, he said: "It was dramatic at the end, but after playing some sensational rugby in the first half we lost our way in the second. We had played them off the park in the first 40, and how the score was only 20-19 at half time I'll never know.
"We just gave away some silly penalties, and allowed for some Jason Robinson magic. We came into half time thinking we should be 15-20 points up because we'd dominated, but we let things drift after that. It's credit to the players for sticking with it until the end."
With Wilkinson making his first start for 11 games, having been on the bench for the last three matches, much media focus had been on his match-up with Sale No.10 Charlie Hodgson.
Andrew said after the game: "My answer is pretty simple, and you'd expect me to say this - Charlie Hodgson is a very, very good player, and Jonny Wilkinson is a great player. As far as I'm concerned that's it.
"Sometimes this game throws up things, and the harder you work the more fortune you seem to get. Whether you believe that or not, rugby generally always gives you back what you put in. Jonny has had a terrible 12 months and is only just starting to come back on the road to recovery. Today, January 2, 2005, maybe he's just getting a little bit back for all the work he's put in.
"But he knows and I know that this game is now finished. It's gone. We've got to go to Perpignan this Saturday in what I believe is the biggest game in this club's history, and we have to deal with that now, not dwell on today too long. That's just the nature of professional sport."
Of Wilkinson's recovery in general, he added: "He's hardly played in 12 months, and it's very important that he gets back on the field.
"To be honest I've been very surprised by some of the judgements that certain people in the media have made about him based on the last few months, given how long he's been out of the game. They've been way off the mark, and we've just got to let him come back on to the field of play and find his feet again, which is why we've spent the last three weeks with him on the bench.
"It's only his fourth game back from a second major lay-off, and in my opinion he completely outplayed the guy opposite him. Not that Jonny or myself are particularly interested in those sort of things, we just want a good team performance, but at this level of rugby you can't step straight back in after a year out and expect someone to pick up his game where he left it at the World Cup final. It's just absurd for anybody to think that, and to be honest it's very ill-judged.
"It will take time for Jonny to come back, and I always had one eye on the fact that we had Sale, Perpignan and Newport in the space of a fortnight. That is sufficient preparation for him to play against Wales in Cardiff, so hopefully he will continue to be injury free and will get there."
The Falcons' victory moves them up to fourth in the Zurich Premiership standings, just three points behind the Sharks, but Andrew insisted: "I don't really look at the table, and it doesn't interest me at the moment.
"We said at the turn of the year that we have a good second half of our season coming up. A lot of the sides above us in the Premiership have to come here, and if we can continue to win our home games then we'll be there or thereabouts."
As for whether Wilkinson should be accommodated by England at inside centre, Andrew stated: "That's for other people to decide. I'm in charge of Newcastle Falcons, and he'll always play No.10 while he's with us.
Another star to shine again for the Falcons was 18-year-old centre Mathew Tait, who scored a stunning opening try from 50 metres.
Said Andrew: "He left Jos Baxendell for dead, couldn't quite get round Jason Robinson so just bounced him and scored in the left corner.
"The kid is 18 and he has a big future, which is exactly what we said last year when we gave him his debut as a 17-year-old schoolboy and he scored against London Irish. He's still got a long way to go and a lot to learn, but he's an extremely talented young man.
"Again, people just have to be careful not to rush him. He's playing with England Sevens and that will be great for his development, but we have confidence that he will be a very, very good player."
The Falcons do not have time to put their feet up, however, as a trip to Perpignan's Stade Aime Giral awaits this Saturday, with Andrew saying: "It sets us up superbly for Perpignan next week.
"We'll have to assess what our injury situation is, take the best squad over there, and as I said earlier, I think it is the biggest game in our history.
"We've got a short week to prepare for it because of travelling and a few battered bodies after what was a hard game today, but we now go over there with great confidence and a winning mentality."