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Playing his first full game since May, fly half Danny Cipriani reminded everybody of what an exciting player he is, with a mixture of speed, passing skill and sheer bravado. It was only his placekicking which was slightly below par but the margin of victory was wide enough for a number of missed kicks to make no difference to the result. A strong performance by the men in black and gold set the 8800 crowd alight on a sunny afternoon in High Wycombe as Wasps took steps to erase memories of their frustrating start to the domestic season.
Wasps were forced into a late change to their starting line-up after Lachlan Mitchell was ruled out with a groin train, so Jeremy Staunton came in at full-back with Dave Walder joining the replacements.
Wasps made their first incursion into Castres territory when Eoin Reddan’s long kick found touch in the visitors’ 22. Wasps stole lineout possession but fierce defence drove them back and Castres were rewarded with the put-in to a scrum outside their 22.
Cipriani’s first major contribution came on six minutes when Wasps ran the ball from their own line and the fly half showed his speed to make 30 metres before the move broke down. A minute later, Wasps were ahead thanks to a lovely piece of skill from Riki Flutey. With the referee playing advantage for a Castres knock on the centre scooped the ball off his toes before darting through a gap and sending a beautiful kick towards the corner. Paul Sackey gathered and cut inside before powering his way over for a superbly-taken try. Cipriani added the extra points with a fine kick.
Four minutes later Staunton launched a counter-attack in which James Haskell burst through to take play up to the Castres 22 but Wasps were penalised at the breakdown. Almost immediately skilful interpassing between the forwards gave Cipriani the chance to split the Castres defence with a dazzling run before feeding Josh Lewsey. The centre was brought down just short of the line but Castres were caught offside and Cipriani kicked a simple penalty to make it 10-0 after 14 minutes.
After 19 minutes the fly half was denied a further three points when his 40-metre penalty clipped the top of the left-hand post and bounced the wrong way. Two minutes later Wasps scored another try when Tom Voyce came into the line from the blind-side wing, accelerated through a gap and swerved inside the defence to race over from 40 metres for a magnificent score. Cipriani’s conversion was a formality.
Castres opened their account through a 26th minute penalty from fly half Cameron McIntyre. Their England international Phil Christophers then made a dangerous run out of defence but a well-timed tackle from Sackey who’d come in from the wing snuffed out the danger.
Wasps were continuing to apply the pressure and a further score seemed inevitable. With nine minutes of normal time left Cipriani pulled a 35-metre penalty to the right of the posts. Four minutes later the Castres flanker Darron Nell was shown a yellow card for an offence on the ground and Cipriani made no mistake from 35 metres to make it 20-3.
Directly from the restart the fly-half’s long pass found Lewsey in space on his own 22 but a promising move broke down when Simon Shaw couldn’t gather a low pass. Sackey then gathered a loose ball at the edge of a maul and wriggled his way through several tackle but the lively Haskell couldn’t hold on to his pass.
This had been the best half of rugby Wasps had produced all season. Castres had rarely threatened and by the end of the half some of their heads were beginning to go down. Wasps were excellent value for their lead with the tight forwards applying pressure, Cipriani combining well with his backs, Tom Rees, Haskell and Joe Worsley popping up everywhere and all the signs suggested that a bonus point was there for the taking.
Wasps applied immediate pressure after the restart and Eoin Reddan did well to burst out of a maul on the Castres 22, only for the ball to squirt out of his hands as he tried to burst clear of the defenders. But it was Castres who landed the first score of the half when McIntre landed an early penalty from 45 metres.
Wasps came right back, and quick hands in the backs sent Voyce away down the left. His chip infield bounced dangerously, but fullback Thomas Bouquie did well to gather, under extreme pressure. Castres then launched a dangerous attack, when a long throw on their 22 went beyond the end of the Wasps lineout. Flanker Steve Malona gathered the bouncing ball and charged downfield, combining well with number eight Florian Faure to take play deep into Wasps territory.
Wasps finally added their third try on the hour after another powerful run from Man of the MatchVoyce, down the left. When the winger was stopped the ball was worked back inside and Cipriani sent a chip over the defence. It bounced awkwardly and Lewsey was on hand to gather 15 metres out and go over. Cipriani could not convert.
This was the signal for Wasps to begin ringing the changes with Eoin Reddan, Raphael Ibanez and Shaw being replaced by Mark Robinson, Rob Webber and Richard Birkett. Wasps were immediately reduced to 14 men however, when Lewsey was sent to the sin bin for killing the ball near his own line.
Undeterred the home side resisted several minutes of intense Castres pressure and Sackey broke clear with a run and kick down the right to take play deep into the 22.
Wasps were now pressing hard for the fourth try and Castres were helping them by committing a series of handling errors. There was concern for Wasps supporters when Tom Rees went down injured after a powerful surge into the 22 having had a clash of heads with an opposition defender. Several minutes of attention brought him back to his feet though to a huge round of applause. Before he could rejoin the fray he was replaced by Serge Betsen.
With the result in no doubt Castres were playing some enterprising rugby and they were rewarded with a try from skipper Lionel Nallet two minutes into injury time. McIntyre’s conversion attempt went wide. In the final minute Betsen was prominent in a Wasps attack to set up quick ball with the backs lining up outside and inviting space ahead of them, but Voyce could not gather an awkward pass and the game ended with Wasps the comfortable winners, looking forward to next weekend’s trip to Dublin with renewed optimism.