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London Wasps capped a remarkable 2003 by defeating London Irish 34-19 at the Madejski Stadium. The game was vital for both sides, as the winner would be guaranteed some breathing in what was becoming a congested top section of the league table. While leaders Bath are still a long way off, Wasps’ bonus point victory from this game has taken them six points ahead of third-placed Irish.
Wasps knew this was never an easy game considering how well Gary Gold’s side have done this season in capitalising on sides while the world cup was on. The coach trip to the stadium didn’t help the situation as an accident on the M4 saw the side arrive at the ground at 2:30pm, 15-minutes ahead of the scheduled kick-off. Fortunately the kick-off was delayed and Wasps had enough time for a quick warm-up.
This season the Black & Gold Army have made a habit of scoring early tries and today was no different as they gave the visiting fans something to cheer about when lock, Richard Birkett, crashed over for the first try early in the game. Birkett has often been overlooked for Man of the Match awards this season when Wasps have done well. The reason for this is that he is usually buried amongst the forwards, only for the backs to steal the limelight. This time the big lock was on hand to pounce on an Irish mistake and crash over for his try in the second minute. Alex King arrived at the game with a perfect kicking record from the last two games, and this conversion was never an issue as he duly added the extra two points, which saw Wasps take an early 7-nil lead.
Irish could have easily come straight back into the game but two penalty misses saw them without points after 20-minutes. In the 21st minute, Gary Gold’s side were caught offside and King again sent the ball between the posts for a 10-point lead.
Winger, Tom Voyce, caused Saracens many problems the week before this game and once again was up to his old tricks in running circles around the Irish defence. He failed to score in the Saracens romp but made amends with scoring Wasps’ second try after only 28-minutes. Flanker, Paul Volley, made the initial break and broke the first Irish tackles. Volley kept his nerve and laid off to Voyce who crossed for his try. King duly added the conversion and Gatland’s side went into a comfortable 17-nil lead.
Irish never looked like scoring tries but were given a glimmer of hope on the stoke of half-time. Wasps were penalised for coming in from the wrong side and Mark Mapletoft secured his side’s first points of the game with a penalty. Referee Chris White blew for half-time and Craig Dowd led his troops off leading 17-3.
During the break Stuart Abbott and Lawrence Dallaglio paraded the Webb Ellis Trophy in front of an impressive crowd of over 20’000.
The first twenty minutes of the second half was all ‘Green’ as Irish came out firing. Gold’s side started to look like the team that has climbed to the top section of the league table. Two penalties from Mapletoft and then a drop-goal, saw them peg back Wasps’ lead to 17-12. At this stage, Irish were in with a sniff but a second penalty from King saw Wasps stretch the lead to 20-12.
At this stage of the match, Gatland made his replacements that saw Rob Howley, Ayoola Erinle, Tim Payne and Trevor Leota replace Peter Richards, Mark Denney, Will Green and Phil Greening respectively.
Howley’s impact was immediate as the former British Lions and Welsh legend calmed the Wasps backs and marched them forward. Howley seems to find time and space when none seem to exist. The Wasps forwards drove on looking to close out the game but came up against some stern defence. Wasps drove on and edged closer and closer to the whitewash before Howley released his backline that saw Mark Van Gisbergen score the side’s third try in the 74th minute. King added his third conversion and it was game over for Irish.
To their credit the home side kept going forward and were rewarded with a consolation try in the 78th minute. Michael Horak was put into space, which saw him glide past Erinle and score under the posts. Mapletoft added the conversion but Wasps still had the game in the bag, leading 27-17.
Wasps knew they had two minutes to find a bonus point and Erinle made up for his miss tackle to score what is quickly becoming his trademark &ndash scoring tries from 50m out. Erinle was put into space and galloped away to score the all-important bonus point try. The delight could be seen as he made up in fine style for his earlier mistake. The centre scored a similar try against Saracens, but this one was better as he was nearly dragged down from the Irish defence. However, his raw power saw him hold on and force his way over. King completed the formalities and Wasps walked away with a 34-19 win.
Paul Volley was named Man of the Match and once again Wasps sent a stern message to everyone in the league: 2003 was great - expect 2004 to be even better.