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London Wasps kept their European ambitions alive with a 15 all draw with Toulouse at the Causeway Stadium today.
In a tense finish, Wasps full back Mark Van Gisbergen held his nerve to slot an awkward penalty with the last kick of the game to draw the home side level.
It was Van Gisbergen's fifth penalty of the afternoon, his first attempt coming after just two minutes, and showing Wasps determination, from the opening minute, to get a result from this game.
The Wasps full back missed his first attempt, from the half way line, but slotted his second just four minutes later. This followed a promising attack from the home side. Supplied with good ball from a driven line out, Wasps' backs looked threatening and Toulouse obstructed Stuart Abbott in an attempt to alleviate the pressure, leading to the penalty award.
Early signs were that Wasps' Captain was Lawrence Dallaglio was going to have a big game with the ball in hand, showing that his pace and power were returning when picking up from the base of the scrum, and making ground picking and driving in the loose.
It was the visitors that crossed the whitewash first however. Their first period of attack had shown the danger that winger Cedric Heymans posed on the wing, with Elissalde looking to pick him out with a wiper kick, but it was from a Elissalde quick tap penalty that the seven points came. Although the Toulouse scrum half appeared to take the tap several metres from the mark he was allowed to play on, finding Jauzion who passed to lock Trevor Brennan. Brennan chipped over the head of Mark Van Gisbergen, and Gareth Thomas beat Josh Lewsey in the chase to touch the ball down in the goal area. Elissalde's conversion gave Toulouse a 7-3 lead on the quarter hour.
Wasps' centres Stuart Abbott and Josh Lewsey worked well together to create exciting moments for the crowd to cheer in the next fifteen minutes. First, Abbott hacked on a loose ball squirting out from a scrum, Sackey booting it further on as the scrambling defence failed to secure the ball. Things looked promising with a scrum ten yards out, Dallaglio again picking up and going blind, but as the ball once again spilled loose in the greasy conditions, Heymans hacked on and chased the ball into Wasps' half. Though the ball rolled into touch, this again served as a reminder of the danger of Toulouse on the counter-attack.
A similar move 5 minutes later lead to Wasps' second penalty. With Toulouse attacking in Wasps 22, Abbott was up quick to tackle man and ball, stealing the ball and hacking on. Abbott and Lewsey tied up the covering Gareth Thomas, and though Heymans ripped the ball and kicked back into Wasps half, Van Gisbergen fielded the kick and went on one of his mazy runs. Support from Jonny O'Connor took Wasps back into the attacking 22, where Toulouse were guilty of handling in the ruck in an attempt to blunt the attack. They were lucky to receive only a warning from the referee, when a score looked possible, but Van Gisbergen slotted the three points to bring Wasps back to 6-7.
Wasps continued to compete hard up front as the game neared half time, and pressure in a scrum, 35m from Toulouse's try line, lead to another penalty chance, which full back Van Gisbergen once again converted to send Wasps in 9-7 ahead at the break.
Wasps continued to play positively as the second half commenced, but struggled to execute moves with consistent accuracy in the slippery conditions. They conceded kickable penalties twice in the net ten minutes, but Elissalde could not hit the target to put his side ahead.
On the 49th minute the Frenchmen put together a flowing move for their second try that showed all the class that made them European champions last season. Moving the ball wide and at pace from a line out, Jauzion made the break behind the line, Wasps missed the tackle on Fritz and Van Gisbergen slipped in the face on a three on one overlap, Clerc finishing off the move to touch down near the corner. No conversion for Ellisalde however, and five minutes later more pressure at a scrum won Wasps another penalty, Van Gisbergen was again on target to bring his team level as the game approached the hour. It did not last though, as Michalak potted a drop goal just one minute after to nose his team ahead once more.
Wasps enjoyed another good period of pressure shortly afterwards. Dallaglio found a gap to charge through a line out ten metres from Toulouse's try line, and though he was stopped short, Wasps kept possession, and a Jonny O'Connor break had the crowd again on it's feet. Toulouse's defence held firm however, and the pressure frittered out following a disappointing drop goal attempt from fly half Alex King.
With just three points between the teams, both sides attempted difficult penalties and drop goals in an attempt to pick up another three points, though as the game went into the last five minutes it was Toulouse who were camped on the Wasps line, their forwards battering the line as the clock ticked toward the 80 minute mark.
As the game entered injury time, Toulouse launched another attack but Michalak, who had moved to scrum half following the departure of a groggy Elissalde from the pitch after 76 minutes, gave a loose pass, and as he hacked in attempting to recover, Van Gisbergen gathered the loose ball and found Sackey who broke up the wing before chipping on deep into the Toulouse 22. Covering winger Vincent Clerc booted the ball over his own dead ball line under Sackey's pressure and conceded a 5 metre penalty.
Wasps forwards again pressured the Toulouse pack in the scum, and the final penalty of the match ensued. With referee Rolland ruling that there was no time for a line out, Wasps looked to the bench for a decision, captain Dallaglio having been replaced by the fresh legs of Tom Rees after 72 minutes. The kicking option was recommended, and Van Gisbergen showed his calmness under pressure to slot the kick and secure the draw as the final whistle sounded.
Director of Rugby Ian McGeechan was in bullish mood after the game, defending the decision to take the penalty opportunity rather than opting for a scrum and going for the winning try.
'The group is still wide open and there is still everything to play for. I thought Toulouse defended well and it was our best performance of the season up front. That massive forwards performance was one of the reasons that we were still in the game at the end.
'We know how dangerous Toulouse can be, and there were no gimmes out there today. Both teams were just happy to take what points were on offer against quality opposition.'
Head Coach Shaun Edwards was also in positive mood overall, saying, 'We are still in the fight for qualification from the pools,' and full of praise for full back Van Gisbergen, who kicked that final penalty under intense pressure.
He was aware of Toulouse's strengths however, 'We were definitely second best when the ball was in the air, they had tall players and they used them well.'
'Their first try was questionable. They took the tap penalty nowhere near the mark and the referee cost us a try there, although he had a good rest of the game. Their second try was a special try however.'
'We were still turning over possession at vital times, making handling errors when the try was on.'
Captain Lawrence Dallaglio was also optimistic about the rest of the group stage, 'After two losses, it was psychologically important to get something out of this game, and lets not forget that Toulouse are very worthy opponents. We had to get something out of this game however, and I think that now, this group will go down to the wire.
'Our last three performances have not been good. We have not been playing anywhere near our best, and I think that again our accuracy was lacking in the early stages of the game today. We also have to acknowledge that out last three games have been played in poor conditions, and we have to be more pragmatic in the way that we play in these sort of conditions, play smarter and execute better.'