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Wasps led 17-3 at the break, after an impressive opening forty minutes. But the second half was much of a closer affair as the visitors pushed hard and almost pulled back the deficit. Wasps defence held strong though and despite an injury to Lachlan Mitchell which saw led off the pitch on a stretcher, it was a positive afternoon for the men in black and gold.
After some early exchanges dominated by kicks, Wasps took the lead on four minutes, when Dave Walder landed a straightforward penalty, after Saints were caught offside on their own 22. As Walder lined up his kick, Northampton’s captain, Dylan Hartley, went off, with blood streaming from a cut above his right eye.
Wasps put together the first passing movement of the game, after Paul Sackey leapt high to claim a lofted kick. The ball was moved out to the left, and Cipriani came into the line, to create space out wide but his pass drifted behind Tom Varndell and into touch.
Dom Waldouck then had his first run of the day, to take play up towards the 22, but he was penalised for holding on to the ball. It was then the turn of Ben Jacobs to open up the Saints defence, after Wasps stole a lineout near halfway. He was stopped 15 metres out, but John Hart couldn’t hang on to a pass with some inviting space ahead of him on the right.
The next serious Wasps threat came in the same corner, after Waldouck chipped into space and the defence came under serious pressure, before being forced into touch. Wasps won good lineout ball and were rewarded with another penalty, 15 metres in, for Walder to stretch the lead to 6-0 with 17 minutes gone.
From the restart, Wasps made possession safe and attacked down the right, with Cipriani again joining the line, but the movement broke down, and there was a pause for treatment to Jon Hart, who appeared to have injured his knee. Happily, he was soon able to resume.
A strong scrum on halfway then led to another penalty to Wasps and Walder made no mistake with a fine kick, to stretch the lead to 9-0 after 26 minutes. Three minutes later Shane Geraghty had a chance to open his side’s account, but his 40-metre penalty drifted wide.
After a brief flare-up between the forwards, Phil Vickery went off, with a cut to his right ear, and Ben Broster came on to temporarily replace him. Wasps should have scored the game’s opening try, after a lightning burst down the left, by Joe Simpson. He found Sackey in support. The winger was stopped just short and the ball was reworked to the left, but Jacobs fumbled an awkward pass with Varndell clear outside him.
A minute later Saints conceded another penalty, a few metres inside their own half, to give Walder his most difficult kick of the day and he sent his kick sailing between the posts, to make it 12-0, with just under ten minutes of the half to play. A minute later, Wasps did cross the line, after Simpson sent a little chip towards the left corner. Cipriani was following up and a fortuitous bounce eluded Chris Ashton, to bounce into the fullback’s hands and he raced clear, to dive triumphantly over in the corner. In the fourth minute of injury time, Geraghty landed a penalty from almost the same position from which he’d missed his previous attempt.
There was still time for another threat from Simpson, close to the Northampton line, before the whistle blew for halftime.
Wasps thoroughly deserved their 14-point lead. The set-pieces had tightened up, after the disappointment at Reading and the backs had asked some serious questions. In defence Wasps had managed to keep the dangerous visiting backs relatively quiet, barring the occasional counterattacking run from Ben Foden.
With two minutes of second half gone, Saints thought they’d scored a try, when Chris Mayor went over in the corner following a neat chip by Geraghty but the referee ruled that there had been a knock on.
A beautiful diagonal kick from Walder found touch near the corner to give Wasps their first attacking position of the half. Varndell went close in the opposite corner, before Northampton cleared to their ten metre line. With thirteen minutes of the half gone, Geraghty’s second successful penalty from 45 metres made it 17-6.
Northampton then came close to a try, after Reihana made a mark in his own 22, and seeing some space, took a quick tap and raced away down the right. He hoisted a high kick into the 22 and Ashton’s chase forced Cipriani to carry over, giving the visitors a scrum at which Wasps were penalised and Geraghty’s kick narrowed the gap to just eight points, reflecting their excellent start to the second half.
An impressive Wasps drive, which took play several metres out of the 22, appeared to restore their confidence, and they were soon rewarded with a penalty, near the ten metre line, but Walder’s kick was well wide.
Wasps then made their first full substitution, with Dan Leo taking the place of George Skivington. Reihana then spotted a gap and set the alarm bells ringing with a scything run from just outside the 22, only being stopped just short of the line.
With thirteen minutes left, Wasps stretched their lead, with a Walder drop goal, following a barnstorming run by skipper Serge Betsen, who emerged from a maul on the ten metre line, to make nearly forty metres before being tackled.
Geraghty had an immediate chance to cancel out those three points, but his 47-metre kick at goal was off target.
Wasps then brought on Tom Lindsay for Rob Webber, whose combative display against England hooker Dylan Hartley earned him the Bollinger Man of the Match award. Lachlan Mitchell replaced Cipriani, who’d taken a heavy blow a few minutes earlier. Geraghty had another long-range penalty chance, and this time he was on target, to make 20-11, inside the last ten minutes.
Sensing that they were very much in the game, Northampton launched their most impressive attack of the day, with some superb offloading setting up a chance for Ashton to race away down the right. He was stopped by a courageous last-ditch tackle by Mitchell, who was clearly injured, and required several minutes of treatment, before a stretcher was called. There was a long and anxious wait before the young Australian was carried off to sustained and sympathetic applause. Eoghan Hickey replaced him, to make his first appearance for Wasps.
Within a minute of the restart, Reihana made it 20-15 with an astonishing penalty from near touch, and several metres inside his own half. Wasps were forced into another substitution when Richard Birkett limped off, to be replaced by another debutant, Will Matthews.
With time running out, Northampton mounted a final siege, which lasted the best part of four minutes. They took play through countless phrases, hammering away at the Wasps defence, before, with the clock at zero, a speculative pass to the unmarked Ashton flew into touch, leaving Wasps the relieved winners of an extraordinary game.
The Guinness Premiership now takes a break for two weeks, as European rugby takes over, and Wasps will begin their Amlin Challenge Cup next Sunday, with a home game against Racing-Metro, from Paris. Tickets are on sale now call 0844 225 2990 or go online here