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A disappointing performance from a Wasps team that had already found themselves in the European last chance saloon saw the team seal their own fate, going down 21-13 to Llanelli Scarlets at Stradey Park this afternoon to effectively rule themselves out of the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup for the second season in succession.
Wasps faced a predictably partisan crowd and contrasting weather conditions as the sunshine of the first half faded at the interval and the mist rolled in to reduce visibility in the second half. Faced with a Llanelli outfit playing simple, direct rugby with some accuracy, Wasps produced a lacklustre performance littered with unforced errors and lacking in fluency. As a result the hosts secured the lion's share of possession and scored courtesy of conceded penalties and errors on the part of the visitors.
Llanelli started positively, the crowd roaring wing Garan Evans as he chased a high kick into the Wasps 22, but Wasps showed attacking intent as Erinle and O'Connor ran the ball out of their own 22 before Stuart Abbott kicked safely to touch.
Llanelli pressured from the line out however, and Wasps conceded a penalty 35 metres out which fly half Gareth Bowen slotted well from just 5 metres from the touch line for a 3-0 lead inside the first 5 minutes.
Wasps countered by winning a penalty of their own soon after the restart, and from just inside the Llanelli half Alex King had the length but pulled the kick wide.
For the next 10 minutes it was Llanelli who were in the ascendant though, winning good ball and making ground from both their own and Wasps line-outs with some slick handling. The attack remained largely lateral however, and though Wasps scrambled at times, they made their tackles to weather the early storm, and a series of penalties in the 11th minutes allowed Dallaglio's men to push back into the Llanelli half where Alex King made no mistake with his next penalty opportunity, levelling the scores after 14 minutes.
Immediately from the restart, Llanelli's No8 Alix Popham was shown the yellow card for stamping at the ruck. Wasps spurned the opportunity to turn the screw though, as first a long kick from Josh Lewsey rolled dead to bring the game back into his own half, and then a promising attack halted as Joe Worsley was found guilty of crossing. Llanelli's next attack did threaten the Wasps line however, though the touch line proved a friend as winger Evans put a foot out as he was headed for the corner.
Wasps continued to be the architect of their own troubles as the game entered the second quarter. Problems in the line out continued, but aggressive defence and the boot of Alex King ensured play remained in the centre third of the field. Unforced errors denied Wasps the continuity to progress into the attacking 22 though, and also gave Llanelli more than their fair share of possession. Bowen missed a penalty from 40 metres in the 36th minute, but 3 minutes later King made no mistake with his opportunity from 25 metres out to give his side a 3 point advantage as they went in at the interval.
The mist rolled in during the break, and the teams ran out into the murk of the second half with the game very much in the balance. In the 46th minute, the balance tipped in favour of the hosts. An error in the Wasps midfield saw Alex King's pass go to ground in his own 22 and Llanelli centre Dafydd James swooped to scoop up the loose ball and stride over between the posts, Bowen slotting the extras to put his side 10-6 ahead as the mist continued to close in.
As confidence grew in the home camp, Gareth Bowen attempted a drop goal in the 52nd minute, but it fell to the right of the posts. Alex King's 56th minute penalty attempt was a difficult one, just five metres inside the touch line and 40 metres out, and it dropped short in the gloom to leave his side trailing as the clock reached the hour.
With 20 minutes remaining and Wasps still trailing by 7, Mark Van Gisbergen took the field in place of Stuart Abbott, and shortly after flanker Rees replaced Joe Worsley.
Fresh legs were to no avail however, as Llanelli winger Mark Jones stretched the lead with a try from nothing in the 64th minute. Breaking blind from the base of a maul, he found the space opening up and sped on to squeeze in at the corner, the television match official confirming that Paul Sackey's last ditch tackle had not pushed him into touch before he had managed to plant the ball over the try line.
This was the cue for the game to open up. From a scrum in the Llanelli third, the ball went though the hands for Erinle to hit up and recycle. Rees was on hand to take the ball on the burst in midfield and go over, Van Gisbergen's conversion pulling Wasps back to 15-13 in the 67th minute.
Llanelli responded by attacking again, first kicking deep into Wasps 22 on the right wing for Jones to chase. This was followed with a strong drive from a line out on the left, but handling errors on both occasions denied them, although Wasps conceded a penalty from that line out drive, which Bowen stepped up to take and nudge his side 18-13 ahead.
Van Gisbergen's opportunity to narrow the gap with a penalty of his own in the 75th minute fell short and Wasps trailed by 5 with 5 minutes of normal time remaining.
Supporters hopes rose when Wasps went forward strongly from the restart, flanker Rees making a strong run up the right side to suck in several players but when he was finally brought down, the required quick ball did not materialise and Llanelli turned over the ball, the Scarlets player flying over the top and interfering with the ball going unacknowledged by referee Alain Rolland.
This was probably Wasps last realistic chance of snatching the win in the dying minutes. From the turnover Llanelli worked their way back down into Wasps 22 and in his urgency to challenge for the ball, flanker Jonny O'Connor went too early in an attempt to catch Llanelli scrum half Dwayne Peel in possession and earned himself a yellow card from Rolland. Despite being pinned back in their own 22, good work from Rees secured the turnover and King and Van Gisbergen looked to run the ball as the clock ticked down, but Van Gisbergen was hauled to the ground and isolated plum in front of the posts. Rolland had no alternative but to award the penalty, which Bowen duly converted with the final action of the game to give his side a 21-13 victory and snuff out any realistic hopes of Wasps progressing to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
After the game both Wasps' Director of Rugby Ian McGeechan and Captain Lawrence Dallaglio acknowledged a poor performance by the team.
'Our European campaign is effectively over,' said Dallaglio, 'We simply weren't good enough today. I'm very disappointed in the performances this afternoon, both from the team and myself. We need to have a good long look at ourselves and make sure that all of the squad are buying into the winning formula. We've been trading on what we achieved in the past for the last two seasons, but we need to move on from there. Some of our layers are working hard at the moment, and others aren't'
On the way the team played in the match, Dallaglio said, 'If we get some momentum going, we have the sort of creative players who can then start to do the work. The oppositions are always going to try and stop us at the set piece, and prevent us from getting that momentum going. We never got beyond four phases today, and so we weren't able to apply pressure where we should have done.'
'We now need to ensure we get back some of the hunger and desire to win. We are out of Europe but we still have plenty left to play for - lets not forget we are second in the league and through to the semi final of another major cup competition.'
McGeechan also declared himself disappointed with the performance of the team. 'We have probably produced our worst performance of the season so far in European competition. Today we made a lot of errors. There are no excuses - they played better than us.
We struggled in the line out and played a lot of the game without the ball. We know we needed to hold on to the ball and control it, and that's exactly what we didn't do for most of the match. I was disappointed in our work at the set piece especially the line out. We ended up living off scraps and trying to force the play, and before you knew it Llanelli had got field position.
When we did hand on to it we scored a good try and made it look easy. However we weren't ruthless enough at the breakdown and there es nowhere near the pace in the game that we would have liked to see, but we gave the ball away too cheaply.'
With the prospect of three more games to go in the Heineken Cup with little prospect of qualification, McGeechan said, 'We'll be full on in the next three games and intend to hurt a few teams if we can. It's over for us for this season but what we play for now is a lot of pride. This is a very proud club, and there is definitely a lot still to play for this season, but everything we do in the next three European game is about pride and what it means to be a Wasp. We'll be there for real next week to be sure.'
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)