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London Wasps stretched their unbeaten run at the Causeway Stadium to 13 months today, recording a 26-16 victory over Sale to draw away from Gloucester in second place in the Premiership.
The Champions left it late however. After trailing from the 15th minute to a soft try from Robert Todd following a defensive error, it wasn't until near the hour that Wasps themselves crossed the whitewash, in the shape of Man of the Match, Richard Birkett to draw level. The try followed the introduction of Wasps returning England internationals, Lawrence Dallaglio, Simon Shaw and Tom Voyce. Their entrance into the game presaged a significant increase in the pace at which Wasps played, and the men in black stretched their lead with a further try from Hoadley, Van Gisbergen adding his fourth penalty in the dying minutes to seal the victory.
With both sides starting the game without their internationals, Sale looked on paper the stronger outfit. Jason Robinson passed a late fitness test to start and captain the side from 15, whilst Sebastien Chabal, who had missed training all week with a stomach bug, was on named on the bench. Sale were playing with a classy back line, Robert Todd and Welsh international Mark Taylor in the centre and danger in the pace of Robinson, Steve Hanley and Oriol Ripol in the back three. In addition the potential weak link, Richard Wigglesworth - a scrum half playing at ten and Sale's fourth choice place kicker - acquitting himself well.
Both sides looked sharp from the start but it was Wasps who had the first opportunity to score. A penalty in the opening 5 minutes lead saw Wasps opt for the line-out, where driving run form McKenzie put Sale on the back foot. Staunton moved the ball wide to Erinle who threatened to break the line with some aggressive straight running and the ensuing offside decision against the Sharks gave Van Gisbergen his first pot at goal. The kick hit the post, although Erinle just missed with his attempt to gather the rebound which, if successful, would have been an opportunistic score.
After a territorial kicking battle that saw Staunton have the last say with an inch perfect punt, Wasps created their next attacking platform from the resultant line out. Wasps stole the line out, and quick reactions from debutant scrum half James Honeyben allowed him to gather and recycle on the floor. Staunton again spread the ball to Erinle, whose arrow straight running line again tested the Sale midfield's courage in tackling and though they held firm in that department, they did concede another kickable opportunity, this time the Wasps full back slotting the ball clean through the posts for a 3-0 lead.
Wasps lead was short-lived however. With Sale attacking into Wasps 22, centre Fraser Waters raced up in defence - too fast - and left a gap for Welshman Mark Taylor to stroll through, committing Van Gisbergen to put Robert Todd over for the score. Wigglesworth converted with a simple kick and the visitors took a 7-3 lead inside the quarter hour.
Taking confidence from the early score, Sale No8 Nathan Bonner-Evans looked to establish another attacking platform, picking and driving from the base of the scrum, but Wasps were able to contain him effectively and it was the home side who put together then next good passage of play. A blind side break from Honeyben kick started the move and Erinle looked to have done enough, offloading beautifully to Waters after half breaking through the midfield, to put his midfield colleague through to score, but Sale scrambled well to stop him. The forward pressure continued however, but although the visitors conceded another penalty under pressure in the 21st minute, Van Gisbergen couldn't add to his tally with the kick.
A high ball for full back Jason Robinson following the restart put Wasps on the front foot again, as the Shark full back fumbled the ball in his own 22, and Rees's quick tap penalty that followed allowed Hoadley to threaten the line. He was held up short, but another infringement saw Van Gisbergen's place kick pull his side back to 6-7, with 23 minutes gone.
Wigglesworth nudged his side ahead again 5 minutes later with a well taken penalty for 6-10, but a good kick off from Staunton allowed McKenzie and Rees to make yards into the 22 with the ball in hand. Lobbe saw yellow for his defensive effort and Van Gisbergen converted the simple resultant penalty on the half hour for 9-10
Sale replied by exploiting an inviting blind side, Martens giving Ripol a good run deep into Wasps 22, and another penalty awarded by Referee Roy Maybank was again slotted by Wigglesworth.
Despite trailing, Wasps half backs continued to stick to the game plan, and fed off the good platform created by the pack to continue moving the ball about and finished the half in the ascendancy. Leo was tackled into touch in goal on one corner, whilst a superb tackle from Sale's Steve Hanley kept Joe Ward out in the other, and the Sharks held on for the half time whistle and a 9-13 lead.
The second half opened with Wigglesworth pulling an early penalty opportunity, but a second chance, after Birkett was warned for use of the boot, hit the target. Pressure continued as Lund's chip ahead from the restart forced Waters to turn and chase back, and Sale looked to have the upper hand with another penalty awarded in their favour, but Wigglesworth, who until that point had acquitted himself well with the boot, made a real mess of his attempt and the lead remained at 7 as the clock passed 50 minutes.
Wasps super-bench of Shaw, Dallaglio and Voyce took the field in the 58th minute, and the effect was immediate. Shaw was instantly in the action, galloping 30 metres downfield before being brought down. Wasps kept the pressure on and Voyce attempted to wriggle over given the quickly recycled ball. Sale concede a penalty and Voyce took it quickly, finding Birkett on hand who ploughed over in the 58th minute, Van Gisbergen's conversion drawing Wasps equal at 16-16.
Wasps enjoyed territorial advantage for the next 10 minutes and showed patience in waiting for their chance. It came after another defence-attracting run from McKenzie pulled Sale left. The ball was served up for Dallaglio, who passed to Voyce, then Rees who shovelled the ball out to Hoadley, diving over in the right corner to take Wasps ahead, Van Gisbergen's conversion giving Wasps a 23-16 lead.
With momentum now running in his team's favour, Voyce broke away down the centre from the restart and into the 22. With Wasps again camped in the Sharks 22, No8 Chabal, who had come on n the 47th minute, was the centre of some controversial drama. Picking up from the base of the Scrum, the Frenchman appeared to stamp on the prone Dallaglio in his attempt to go past him. Referee Maybank did not like what he saw, and the Sharks talisman was shown the red card. This was followed shortly after by another off the ball incident in which Lund collared Dallaglio and pulled him to the floor after the whistle had sounded, leading another penalty attempt for Van Gisbergen, his successful attempt taking Wasps out to 26-16 with 3 minutes remaining.
Another Voyce spurt, up the left wing, that kept Wasps in attacking mode as the clock ticked down, until Chris Mayor broke out, 2 minutes remaining, to give Sale a rare visit to the Wasps 22 . A charged down drop goal attempt allowed Wasps to pin them back to the half way line, but Sale were able to keep the ball alive for a lengthy period of time, looking for the penalty opportunity that would give them the losing bonus point although the countdown read zero. Robinson's last gasp drop goal attempt fell short however, and Van Gisbergen kicked the ball dead to ensure Sale went home empty handed.
After the game, Director of Rugby Ian McGeechan declared himself very pleased with the performance and the result.
'To come away with a win today was very important,' he said. 'One versus 2 in the league will always be a competitive affair. The determination that the players showed in the last few minutes, to deny Sale even a bonus point, reflected their attitude throughout the match. We trained very hard this week, and today's result is a reflection of that and a credit to those players. After Sale reached the 16 point mark, it was important that we didn't let them get any further away from us, and I was very pleased with the speed and accuracy that we showed in coming back to win.'
Head Coach Shaun Edwards, speaking on the defensive error that let Sale in for the first try, felt, 'The defensive system we use is high risk, high reward strategy, and if you make a mistake, it can be very glaring. Fraser Waters came up too fast, and as a mistake it was glaring. If he had made the hit we probably would have scored, but he didn't - so they did.'
Club Captain Lawrence Dallaglio was also mindful of the importance of the result. 'This was a very, very important game for us to win, given the other results from the weekend. I thought that today we played more like the Wasps we know from last season, and I don't think the scoreboard reflected the game. Sale are a dogged team and the message to us when we came on from the bench was to raise the tempo of the game. I think we achieved that.'
Referee: Roy Maybank
MOTM: Richard Birkett