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If Wasps Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson had screeched into the stadium car park in a mini, we could have called it the Italian Job. As it was, they flew in from Rome this morning to play for their club in this afternoon's Guinness Premiership clash with Northampton Saints. While Dawson started from the bench Dallaglio ran out for the full 80 minutes, as did Wasps' Irish contingent, Jonny O'Connor and Eoin Reddan, the latter celebrating his first cap for his country against France yesterday.
Try as they might however, Wasps could not overcome the handicap of the conditions that reduced both sides to an uninspiring contest characterised by tactical kicking and forwards drives. Handling became increasingly difficult and both sides made errors, but despite this Wasps were able to recover from a 10-point deficit to set up a nail biting finish, though the honours were shared in a 19-19 draw at the final whistle.
So, in wet conditions and unremitting rain, Wasps kicked off and it was immediately obvious how greasy the pitch surface was. Despite this the home side showed early ambition, spinning the ball wide to Erinle for an early first touch on the wing before being tackled into touch.
Northampton's early attempts to attack through their forwards proved fairly fruitless, in contrast Wasps' pack put on some good early drives, culminating in a penalty opportunity after 7 minutes, which Alex King converted for a 3 - 0 lead.
Saint's were ahead from the restart though, the crowd looking on nonplussed as Jon Clarke gathering a Wasps knock on from the kick off and weaved past Peter Bracken and Mark Van Gisbergen to score under the posts, Reihana converting for a 7-3 lead.
Alex King pulled Wasps back with a long range penalty from just inside his own half in the 11th minute, but the hosts struggled to hold onto possession when they had it, giving it up from the restart, a 5 metre line out and then King kicking the ball dead, allowing Saints to establish themselves in Wasps half and keep the pressure on for much of the first quarter.
The second quarter saw Wasps starting to put the phases together, but as handling became increasingly difficult both sides were finding it difficult to play with any consistency and Reihana was glad to take advantage of a penalty opportunity to add three points to theSaints' lead after 28 minutes.
As the kickers began to dominate play, Wasps won a penalty of their own shortly before half time, but King pushed the ball wide and though Wasps managed to work the ball back into Saints 22 from a 5 metre scrum on their own line as the game went into injury time, and a bullocking run for Erinle looked promising, the players went in for half time without further score.
Reihana's early penalty saw his side stretch their lead to 7 in the second minute of the second half and then to 10 in the 52nd minute as Spencer's clever kicking kept Wasps pinned back in their defensive half as they trailed by 16 points to 6.
Wasps went forward from the restart however, and after concerted battering of the Saints defence from close quarters, King put a clever grubber through for Hoadley to collect, and though he was tackled before reaching the line, the quick recycle allowed Mark Van Gisbergen to score in acres of space in the 54th minute, King's conversion bring the score back to 13-16.
Wasps were lucky to escape conceding an immediate returning score from the restart, Eoin Reddan saving the day by winning a foot race to the ball after Saints had hacked on into the dead ball area, albeit with Northampton's prop, Tom Smith.
As the game entered the final quarter, Wasps were able to look after the ball with a little more success. They worked their way into the Saints half for the final ten minutes and after pressure lead to a penalty, the hosts chose to take the scrum, after which Carlos Spencer's high tackle on King earned him a yellow card and Van Gisbergen slotted the straightforward penalty for parity whilst King recovered.
Reihana replied by slotting a pressure penalty, kicking from a wide position and only just inside his own half, to nudge his side ahead with just 7 minutes remaining on the clock. Wasps, however, soon found themselves back in the Saints' 22 - thanks to a counter-attacking up and under from Paul Sackey - and after Dawson took the gamble of a quick penalty in the attacking 22, King potted a straightforward drop goal in the 76th minute to bring the sides even once again.
And so Wasps' supporters had their hearts in their mouths as the game came neared its close. An impressive rumble from the pack in black put them again in Saints 22 with minutes to go, but with Alex King in the pocket waiting for the drop goal opportunity, Saints turned over the ball to break away into the Wasps half, though Clarke was brought down before he got into the Wasps 22, and referee Rob Debney blew his whistle on a 19-19 draw.
After the match Director of Rugby Ian McGeechan was balanced in his appraisal of the match. Accepting that preparations had been difficult this week in the absence of such a large number of the squad, he acknowledged that a game plan may have been difficult to implement due to the disruption to training. In the event, the conditions dictated the style of the game however, McGeechan feeling 'Conditions made it easy for us in that regard - it became a very simple game plan for both teams.'
Having said that, he also thought, 'We didn't control the ball well enough, didn't put the ball in the right places in the first 50 minutes, and really we gave Northampton an easy ride during that time. After kicking those two penalties after half time they were in the driving seat, but in the last half hour I thought we played well. We were better under the high kicks in that 30 minutes and that gave us a platform, which we were lacking in the first half.'
Reflecting on the value of the result, McGeechan said, 'This was always going to be a dangerous game for us because of the quality players they have - they have got match winners all over the place in the backs - so with the sort of week we have had, I thought we did well.'
Discussing the inclusion of some of yesterday's Six Nations participants in the 22, the Director of Rugby said, 'Lawrence and Matt were keen to get a bit of rugby under their belts, it can be difficult to go for 3 weeks without significant pitch time and then get back into it. It was a tough call on some of the players who have been training all week, but they knew we were approaching this game with a flexible selection policy, and all praise to them for keeping their focus throughout the week in training.'
Captain Lawrence Dallaglio said, 'I think a draw was a fair result. This is a difficult time of the season for us, we have to regroup, hand in there and get the points where we can.'
Referee: Rob Debney
MOTM: Jonny O'Connor