Jonny Wilkinson has been hailed as "world-class" after providing the inspiration for Newcastle’s stirring 26-21 victory against Guinness Premiership leaders Bristol.
England’s 2003 World Cup hero had until Friday night spent eight weeks on the sidelines with a medial knee ligament injury but he played the full 80 minutes to help the struggling Falcons to victory.
The fly-half, who has not played for England since the 2003 World Cup final against Australia, claimed 11 points in an impressive display which left Newcastle director of rugby John Fletcher delighted.
"He is battered and bruised but has come through fine," said Fletcher.
"We don’t have that many world-class players but he is special – he makes the team tick."
Bristol head coach Richard Hill could not hide his admiration for Wilkinson, who has been cruelly dogged by injury since his famous drop-goal saw England crowned world champions in Sydney three years ago.
Hill said: "Not bad for someone coming back from such a long layoff. You could see he was enjoying himself."
Wilkinson played a key role for the Falcons as first-half tries from Mathew Tait, Matt Thompson and Brent Wilson laid the platform for their success.
Bristol hit back to claim a bonus point with second-half tries from Lee Robinson and Dan Ward-Smith, while Jason Strange matched Wilkinson’s 11 point-haul with the boot.
Bristol’s bonus point ensured they remained top of the Premiership above defending champions Sale, who beat Wasps 18-12 last night at Edgeley Park.
Both sides were missing a clutch of bodies through international call-ups and injuries but Daniel Larrechea’s 15-point haul for Sale proved the difference.
The Frenchman landed four penalties and a drop-goal and bossed the game from fly-half in the absence of Charlie Hodgson before succumbing to injury shortly before the hour mark.
Wasps replacement Dave Walder landed a last-gasp drop-goal to hand his side a deserved bonus point from a fiercely-contested encounter dominated by the respective packs.
Sale director of rugby, Philippe Saint-Andre, said: "If you want to be in the top four then you have to win big games during the international break.
"I’m very proud of the players. It was maybe not an open game but it was a physical game and very close.
"But I think we deserved to win because we showed a lot of composure and patience during the 80 to 85 minutes."
Wasps director of rugby Ian McGeechan withdrew Lawrence Dallaglio during the closing stages but he insisted it was a tactical move.
"It was just to put some fresh legs on and keep the pressure on in the last 10 minutes or so," said McGeechan.
"We had five forwards on the bench anyway and that gave us the flexibility to make changes if we needed to.
"We made a couple of errors which allowed Sale out of their 22 but what pleased me was that we got straight down their end.
"The last two or three minutes showed that, when we get it right, we can get points in any game."