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London Wasps three-year reign as Premiership Champions is over, after a brave but ultimately disappointing loss to Sale in Stockport.
The only try of the game came after a sparkling run from Jason Robinson. Tom Voyce had been forced from the pitch shortly beforehand, pulling up with a hamstring problem just as the try line was beckoning. Afterwards, Ian McGeechan described it as a 'seven point injury', and indeed it did seem to be a turning point in the game.
Sale's own defining moment was possibly the injury to Charlie Hodgson, incurred after a huge hit from Simon Shaw. Playing on, despite have popped a rib cartilage, Hodgson's discomfort dictated a change in Sale's tactics, as they employed a much more narrow, driving game, protecting Hodgson.
Wasps defended courageously in the face of Sale's physical onslaught but were, unfortunately largely the architects of their own downfall. Opportunities to build an attack were few and far between as the Londoners fell victim to the turnover, clocking no less that 28 in the game. In addition, Sale dominated the lineout and, starved of any meaningful possession, Wasps were unable to build any momentum in their game.
The visitors approach was characterised from the first kick off. Hodgson kicked long, and Wasps put immediately put themselves under pressure, fumbling the kick off reception and handing Sale good ball five metres from Wasps line. Referee Chris White deemed Wasps offside under the posts, and Hodgson converted the opportunity for a 3-0 lead after just 1 minute.
Wasps responded positively however, some driving in the mauls seeing Sale concede a penalty themselves for Van Gisbergen to draw Wasps even at 3-3 after 5 minutes, though his second attempt five minutes later, from the 10 metre line, was off target.
Wasps began building an attack following Van Gisbergen's prodded kick through the midfield, which bounced awkwardly for Robinson. Forced to hurry his clearance, he made little ground and Wasps had a good attacking line out. Joe Ward took the ball up and Wasps won quick ball for the backs. However, Jason White was knocked out cold attempting to tackle Ward, and the physios called for the referee to stop the game. White recovered to continue, but Wasps momentum was lost. From a scrum midfield Sale looked to drive and won a penalty for Hodgson, who hit the target to put his team 6-3 ahead in the 16th minute.
Shortly after the restart, Sale poached the first of several Wasps lineouts, and Seveali'i tried a little chip over the re-organising Wasps defence. Tom Voyce read it well however, and plucking the ball from the air was away on his own. Unfortunately, with the try line at his mercy the winger's hamstring gave out and he was reduced to throwing a hopeful pass infield, allowing Sale's covering defence to snatch back possession as Wasps best chance thus far went begging.
With Voyce forced off the field, Waters came into the centres. Having regained possession, Sale took advantage to win a third penalty opportunity for Hodgson, who made no mistake to give his team a 9-3 lead as the game entered the second quarter.
With turnovers starting to creep into the Wasps game, they were struggling to build a platform. Charlie Hodgson meanwhile, confident behind a pack that was burgling Wasps ball with good effect, chose to hoof up the high balls for his forwards to steal line outs and pick off possession with big first phase tackles.
Shaw's huge tackle on Hodgson threatened to rattle the fly half, but he refused to leave the field, despite being in considerable discomfort. Instead, he changed tactic, and Sale employed a narrow driving game to give their 10 some respite. However, Wasps met fire with fire A great tackle from Worsley on Chabal saw the Sharks No8 spill the ball and allow Wasps to play the hosts at their own game, driving 30 metres up the pitch to the Sale 22, where Staunton attempted a drop goal, but to no avail.
From the restart Sale put together their best passage of play yet. Seveali'i, Lund and Lobbe combined well to get behind the Wasps defensive line, from where Jason Robinson worked a little but of magic. Leaving Richard Birkett grasping at air, the full back was clean through, weaving a gap between the covering Van Gisbergen and Lewsey to score the first try of the game. Hodgson's conversion gave Sale a 16-3 lead as the half our passed.
The try spurred Wasps to raise their game, and the visitors were able to hang on to a little more possession, enjoying a good spell before half time. Van Gisbergen had a penalty attempt with the last kick of the half, but unfortunately was again off target, leaving Sale leading 16-3 at the turnaround.
The good work continued into the start of the second half, and soon won Van Gisbergen another chance at goal, which he converted to narrow Sale's lead to ten points in the 43rd minute.
The Sharks responded by driving back into Wasps 22, and though Reddan intercepted and was away, a previous off side meant Chris White pulled him back and instead Hodgson added three more points to Sharks tally. A break from Cueto threatened to increase the lead further, but despite a four on one overlap, Hodgson could not get the ball into his attackers hands and Wasps escaped. Good kicking from Staunton steadied the ship, and Van Gisbergen pulled back another three points in the 51st minute to keep his team in contention.
The next ten minutes were full of excitement and end to end stuff as first Cueto broke into Wasps 22, and then Wasps came back with a counter attack of their own, only a huge tackle from Chabal on Shaw denying Sackey a try scoring pass.
With fresh legs on in the shape of Dawson and Ibanez, and the Sharks showing signs of tiring, Wasps looked determined. As the game approached the hour, they launched a good attack that took them all the way to the Sale try line, but aggressive defence from the hosts drove Wasps back out of the 22 and won them a penalty to ease the pressure.
The Sharks were not through yet. Tired players were substituted and the replacements gave them the energy they needed to keep going forward. Wasps were focussed and wiling to be patient however, and absorbed another barrage from the likes of Chabal and White to come back and win another penalty opportunity for Van Gisbergen, who made it 19-12 with 15 minutes remaining.
The task still looked achievable, and Wasps had opportunities to put Sale under pressure, but turnovers and stolen line outs meant they were unable to keep their hands on the ball. Sale gratefully took the chance to kick down into Wasps 22, and after a driven lineout under Wasps posts was collapsed, Charlie Hodgson took his team into the Guinness Premiership final with a simple penalty in the 78th minute.
It was a gritty performance from the defending champions, but lacked the polish to secure a fourth Premiership final for Dallaglio's men. The captain summed it up saying, 'We gave it everything today and obviously we are very disappointed not to have won.
'Good luck to Sale. They have been very consistent all season, and I hope they do well in the final.'
Pens Van Gisbergen (4)
Pens Hodgson (5)