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London Wasps have beaten Sale by 43 points to 22 to secure a place in their third conscutive Zurich Premiership Final, against Leicester Tigers next Saturday, 14th May.
However, Wasps will be without open side flanker Tom Rees, who was stretchered off after 70 minutes with damaged knee ligaments that will keep him sidelined for Twickenham next weekend.
Sale too picked up injuries. Starting without Lions selected prop Andrew Sheridan, the Sharks were down to 13 men by the end of the game. Casualties included Charlie Hodgson, who left the field after a knock to the head, Andy Titterall, who received stitches to a head wound and did not return to the field, Magnus Lund (dead leg), Steve Hanley (ankle) and replacement John Carter, who suffered a dislocated shoulder.
As a game however, there was no denying the entertainment value. The first half was end to end stuff with Hodgson getting Sale on the scoreboard early, with a penalty after 3 minutes. Three minutes later Wasps created their first scoring opportunity but Van Gisbergen, with the line at his mercy, could not hold on to the pass.
On ten minutes, Alex King brought the home side equal with drop goal, but the parity was short lived as from the restart, Simon Shaw fumbled the catch, the ball bouncing off his chest into the hands of Sharks’ Jason White, the Scottish international feeding Chabal who crossed under the posts.
It was Sale who had the best of the next ten minutes, Hanley looking dangerous on the counter attack, whilst his opposite number Paul Sackey was occupied with some try saving tackling. Wasps were giving up some easy possession, with passes going astray in their own 22, and clearance kicks failing to find touch. However, it was Gatland’s men who were next on the scoresheet and they started to find some fluency in the second quarter. A well worked try saw Wasps recycling well for Tom Voyce to make ground up the left wing, and with quick ball available, Alex King swung the ball wide right for Tom Rees to score on the overlap. Van Gisbergen’s conversion made it 10-10, and game on.
Almost from the restart came the most memorable score of the day, a striking individual effort from Josh Lewsey. The winger-playing-centre gathered the ball in his own 22, and powered the length of the pitch without another playing laying a hand on him. In a display of strength and vision, he outstripped both Cueto and Robinson to touch down under the posts, Van Gisbergen adding the extras for 17-10.
Wasps were beginning to build momentum, and another scoring chance came quickly. Centre Ayoola Erinle chipped the midfield and followed his own kick. Hanley chased back too, but the ball bounced awkwardly over the Sale man’s head, and into the hands of the onrushing Erinle. Unfortunately, the centre could not hold onto the ball for what would certainly have been a try.
Hodgson left the field on the half hour, replaced by scrum-half-cum-fly-half Richard Wrigglesworth. Wrigglesworth settled quickly however, running laterally with quick line-out ball to pop the perfect pass to centre Robert Todd. Todd cut a line straight through Wasps midfield and Jason White was on hand to take the offload on the switch to score, though Wriggleworth missed the conversion attempt and Sale closed the gap to 17-15
Controversy followed as on 34 minutes, Chabal caught Dawson in possession at the back of a ruck. A scuffle between the two ensued, but meanwhile Sale gathered the loose ball and Robinson found space in the Wasps defence to score in the corner. However, touch judge David Kurk called the referee back due the incident between Dawson and Chabal and after his recommendation, referee Pearson disallowed the try and awarded Wasps a penalty against Chabal for foul play.
It was Sale and Chabal who had the last word of the half however, the French back rower taking the ball up to create a platform for fly-half Wrigglesworth to put in the perfect cross field kick, Cueto beating Voyce to collect and score in the corner. Wrigglesworth nailed the conversion, and Sale were ahead 22-17 at the turnaround
The second half was all Wasps however. An early penalty from Van Gisbergen was quickly followed by a try. The home pack showed patience in putting together a twenty yard drive, and though they didn’t find the try line, the feed from Dawson saw Alex King pass beautifully out of the tackle to put Erinle through near the posts. Another Van Gisbergen conversion, and a second penalty five minutes later gave Wasps a 30-22 lead.
Sale replied with a period of pressure of their own, but Wasps were organised in defence, and growing in confidence. They cleared their lines without conceding, and on the hour found their way back into Sale’s half. It was King again who set up Wasps next score. Given quick ball from the line-out, the fly half ghosted through the defence and into Sharks’ 22, where Simon Shaw was on hand to take the final pass and score.
Van Gisbergen’s conversion took the score to 37-22. With just over ten minutes remaining, Wasps started to employ the subs bench, Craig Dowd taking the field for the last time at Causeway to a huge round of applause from the crowd. Minutes later Rees departed on a stretcher, and as Sale’s numbers depleted rapidly in the final minutes, Van Gisbergen slotted another two penalties for a final score of 43-22.
Director of Rugby Warren Gatland was pleased with his team’s performance, saying, “The best team won on the day, and won comfortably. We needed this game, and today was about not letting ourselves down. I felt last week, after having only played two games in the last month, we were short. Some people are concerned about the number of games teams’ have to play at this time of year, but for us I think we need those games. Shaun has described it as being battle-hardened. Last week we weren’t battle hardened, but today we performed much better.
The win means Wasps progress to their third consecutive Zurich Premiership Final, against Leicester Tigers, at Twickenham next Saturday, 14th May. To book tickets for this match, ring See Tickets on 0870 190 9098
Tries Erinle, Lewsey, Shaw, Voyce
Cons Van Gisbergen 4
Pens Van Gisbergen 4
DG Alex King 1
Tries Chabal, Cueto, Todd
Cons Hodgson 1, Wrigglesworth 1
Pens Hodgson 1