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Worcester 9 Newcastle 30
Frustration in the otherwise inexorable rise of Worcester from the lower reaches of regional rugby to this Premiership debut generally has come from the north. It was the Yorkshiremen of Rotherham and Leeds who impeded the final step in their journey for three years, so it was no surprise that Newcastle on Sunday should provide distinctly unaccommodating first-up adversaries at top level.
Worcester did enough to suggest that they will do considerably better than Rotherham managed in either of their Premiership seasons. Craig Gillies can be relied on both to ensure plenty of line-out possession on Worcester's put-in and to disrupt their opposition. They have pace on one wing in Ben Gollings and class on the other in French international Thomas Lombard, while centre Gary Trueman ran straight and forcefully in the style of Lombard's erstwhile Stade Française colleague Brian Liebenberg. And in the first quarter James Brown had a definite edge over Jonny Wilkinson in the category of left-footed goal-kicking outside-halves with birthdays on May 25.
Whether Worcester will be good enough to claim the eight or nine victories that may be necessary to secure survival at the end of a22-game season is another matter. Cheered on by an animated crowd, they began with the fire and drive to be expected of a newly promoted team.
Fire, though, is not always conducive to clarity of thought and execution. Their one clear chance was lost when centre Dale Rasmussen, a late replacement for skipper Ben Hinshelwood, hit the ground rather than his winger when an accurate pass would have brought a try. Rewards for their bright opening, which clearly unsettled Newcastle, were limited to two penalties from Brown.
Newcastle's composure was not long in returning and by half time Worcester's fans doubtless felt that the novelty of seeing Wilkinson's kicking at Sixways had worn off after six goal attempts in 24 minutes. One bounced on the crossbar, a second fell short and the other three penalties and a conversion went the way expected of Wilkinson's kicks, adding 11 points to a try by flanker Mike McCarthy in the 21st minute. Worcester continued to compete well for most of the second half but a single penalty from replacement centre Tommy Hayes midway through the second half merely seemed to provoke Newcastle into upping the pace and former All Black centre Mark Mayerhofler surged through space created by David Walder's ability to deliver a fast, flat pass. Walder, an adept deputy last season for Wilkinson, was the creator again when Stuart Grimes scored in injury time.
Wilkinson, who eased back into action in characteristically solid but unspectacular style and lasted the full 80 minutes without apparent discomfort, landed both kicks. He said afterwards he was pleased to have come through the game and with the win but disappointed with his own performance.