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London Wasps secured a Zurich Premiership semi-final place on Saturday by beating the third placed Sharks, 9-16, in damp and cold conditions at Heywood Road.
This win extends Wasps’ unbelievable unbeaten run in all competitions to 11 in a row and Warren Gatland’s team have now won 15 of the last 17 games played.
The Sharks hadn’t been beaten at Heywood Road in the Premiership since November 2001 and had won the last four encounters between the two sides. Since taking over as Director of Rugby last season, The Sharks was the only side Gatland had failed to beat. Ironically, last November, The Sharks were the first away side to win at Adams Park and inflicted Wasps’ first home defeat in more than a year. This win by Wasps, can be seen as ‘retuning’ the favour.
The sides woke up in Sale to rain on Saturday morning and immediately it was known that because of the wet conditions, the forwards would dominate and control the game. And the Wasps’ forwards did dominate, especially in the first half.
First blood went to The Sharks when Wasps were penalised for not rolling away properly in a tackle. Jos Baxendell made no mistake with the penalty in front of the posts and Jim Mallinder’s side lead 3-0 after only 2 minutes.
Moments later, after missing an earlier penalty attempt, Alex King landed his first of the day to level the scores.
Baxendell missed a penalty in the 13th minute but made up for it when Wasps were penalised for being offside. He calmly landed the three points and the Sale side lead 6-3.
That penalty seemed to spur Wasps on as the forwards started to take charge of the game. Captain Lawrence Dallaglio led by example and set up the only try of the game. His pick-up, charge forward and handing off of three defenders before passing to King, was outstanding. The flyhalf then managed to pass the ball to Rob Howley while still in the tackle. The Welsh Wizard sold the dummy to the Sharks defence and went over for the try in the 20th minute. It was a great run from Dallaglio and finished off cheekily by the scrumhalf. King landed the easy conversion and Wasps lead 6-10.
That try sent ‘white line fever’ to the forwards as no sooner had the restart taken place, Wasps were at it again, hounding the Sharks try-line. The final quarter of the first half, Wasps literally camped along their opposition line. It was a case of who was going to score. Wasps pushed and drove forward, only to be held up by the Sharks, now desperate defence. All the forwards pushed and wanted the try but it never came. In hindsight, the ball should have been given to the backs but with the wet conditions the ball was always going to stay with the pack. Wave after wave of attacks were thrown at Mallinder’s side, and to their credit, they held on and kept the much bigger pack at bay for the remainder of the first half. Wasps should have added more points during this period but never and went into the break leading 6-10.
Mallinder’s side knew they had held their own during the first 40 minutes and with this knowledge, gained confidence. They came out firing and came close when Stuart Pinkerton lost the ball while being tackled along the Wasps’ tryline. However, Baxendell kept The Sharks in the game by adding another penalty and closed the gap to 9-10. One point in it and it was still anybody’s game. Wasps seemed to settle after the initial Sharks’ second half onslaught and when King landed two more penalties in the 57th and 63rd minutes to stretch the lead to 9-16, Wasps took more control of the game.
However that control was short lived as Trevor Leota was yellow carded for having his hands in the ruck one too many times. The Sharks seized the opportunity as Wasps played ten minutes of the final quarter of the game with only 14 men. As the rain pelted down, The Sharks came attacking. It was a case of could Dallaglio’s men hold on and ride out the storm. The Sharks came close to scoring during the dying moments of the game but Wasps bravely held on and secured the 9-16 win to record their eleventh win in a row. <2>
After the game, Man of the Match, Dallaglio said, “We deserved the win as we did well in the second half. Our forwards, however, had too much try line fever. I do think we will play The Sharks in the semi-final.
Gatland said, “ Tactically we were good in the first half but our defence in the second half is what won us the game.
This win means The Men in Black have secured a Zurich Premiership semi-final place. However, Wasps will need to beat the NEC Harlequins next Saturday to secure a home semi-final, but the main thing is that Warren Gatland’s Black and Gold Army are into the semis, into next seasons Heineken Cup more importantly, and one step closer to Twickenham.