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If someone said to you that in the 2002/2003 season, your team, London Wasps, would win ten games in a row, lie in a top three-league position ahead of the Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints and book a place in a cup final, you would have thought, ‘get real, it would never happen’. Amazingly it has.
Wasps went down to Sardis Road, The so called ‘House of Pain’, with a 15-point lead in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, second leg, semi-final showdown over Pontypridd. Many questions were asked, ‘ would 15-points be enough? Can Wasps hold on for the win? And how painful would this so called ‘House of pain’ really be? In fact, a Wasps staff member, who was wearing his Wasps jacket, was in a convenience store in Wales, the Friday afternoon before the game. He calmly received a tap on his shoulder and was told in a Welsh accent that. “Those 15-points you have, you’re going to have to work very very hard for each of them. A nervous shudder could be felt down his spine.
Amazingly, the answers to the above questions were answered in the only way The Men in Black know how, and that is to score tries. Three quick tries before half time and it was game, set and match. The writing was on the wall that, Wasps were on their way to the Madejski Stadium for their first final in a long time.
To be fair, there was a nervous moment when Ponty winger, Gareth Wyatt crossed over for the first points of the day. The try came in the 7th minute and when Brett Davey added the conversion, it was game on. Ponty threw everything at Wasps and Warren Gatland’s team had to stem this early Welsh onslaught. However, a Joe Worsley try minutes later brought a sudden holt to the vocal Ponty fans. Alex King converted and it was 7-all. The try was like a boxer’s counter punch that stunned Ponty and his fans.
King added an easy penalty in the 20th minute to allow Wasps to take the lead, a lead they would never relinquish.
Five minutes later the second punch came courtesy of Josh Lewsey. The England fullback, who normally plays on the wing for Wasps, was moved to No.15 for this game. Lewsey caused mayhem from that position by linking up with the backline and outpacing the Ponty defence on numerous occasions. His try came in the 25th minute when King collected a ball which was knocked on from the Ponty backline. King looked up and saw that Ponty fullback Davey was out of position. He kicked the ball in the open space and Lewsey began his chase. It was like watching a racehorse at full speed. Everyone knew that if Lewsey collected the ball, nobody would catch him. He did, and added the extra five points to the board. King made no mistake with the easy conversion and the lead was stretched to 7-17.
Ponty knew that to come back from this position was going to take a mammoth task. They bravely fought on and wasted no time in trying to intimidate the Wasps players. In fact, French referee Joel Dume, had to separate the players on numerous occasions when things got a little too heated amongst the forwards.
Before the half hour mark, Wasps added the third blow to Ponty. Ten points up in the game; another Wasps try would be the end for the Sardis Road side. That third and knockout punch came from Simon Shaw. The big lock was on the end of a long backline move that saw him collect from five meters out, charge forward and stretch his big frame over the line in the corner. All three tries came in the space of 10 minutes and when King added his third conversion to take the lead to 7-24, it was all over for Ponty.
Ponty did add more points but it a case of too little too late. A Davey penalty in the 35th minute brought the scores to 10-24 and when New Zealander, Craig Dowd was yellow carded for talking back to the referee before half time, Ponty knew they had another opportunity to score again with Wasps one man down. Their second try came from flyhalf Ceri Sweeney. It was a wonderful backline move before the break and when Davey added the conversion to take the score to 17-24, Dume blew his whistle for half time.
41-points and five tries in the first 40-odd minutes meant a spectacular game for the neutral fans. However, if fans were spoilt with points in the first-half, they were severely starved in the second. In fact, Davey’s conversion was the home side’s last points of the night.
The only points came from Wasps when King slotted a penalty in the closing stages of the game. That took the score to 17-27 and that’s how this remarkable semi-final finished.
Gatland threw on the replacements during the last quarter and they all did well to keep out the Ponty attacks. Lawrence Dallaglio led by example and was named man of the match.
Gatland’s Black and Gold army won their tenth match in a row and have booked a place in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup final. Ironically when travelling back from Wales along the M4, one can see the lights of the Madejski Stadium from the road. As the team bus must have passed it, I’m sure a few smiles and the excitement of reaching the final must have seen and felt.