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As Wasps made their journey to Welford Road last night there were fears that a seven point lead, picked up in the first leg of the Guinness A League final at Henley three weeks ago may not be enough in the fortress that is Welford Road. But after a solid performance from the visitors those fears seemed to be unfounded as London Wasps A team beat the Tigers with a convincing 30 points to 22 winning not only the match but the A League title.
In front of a crowd of 12,620 last nights match was not a typical A League game. With end to end movement and constant fluent attacking it proved to be a much more attritional affair. A solid forward performance, with skipper John Hart leading from the front, backed up by some appropriately Tigerish defence and a masterful display of tactical kicking by Dave Walder, paved the way for a memorable 30-22 win. That made it an aggregate win of 64-49, to avenge the final defeat of two years ago.
Stretching their seven point advantage within three minutes of the start, Wasps won quick possession from a scrum just outside the Leicester 22. Dominic Waldouck's superb break split the defence and sent centre Edd Thrower over for a fine try. Walder's conversion attempt was just off target.
After the feisty first leg it was no surprise to see an early flare up on the five minute mark, resulting in a cut eye (and four stitches) for Nick Adams. Rather better for Wasps was the fact that, after consulting his touch judge the referee awarded Wasps a penalty, which Walder successfully landed bringing the scores to 8-0 on the night, 42-27 on aggregate. The fifteen point lead was immediately cut to twelve when Ian Humphreys kicked a 30-metre penalty from in front of the posts.
Wasps then had a chance to restore their advantage when Walder dropped for goal from 30 metres, but his kick drifted just wide. The fly half was also off target, two minutes later, when he missed a long-range penalty. Humphreys then made Wasps pay for the missed chances, when he slotted a simple penalty from in front of the posts after 16 minutes.
Wasps came close to a second try after a penalty to the corner set up quality line-out possession, but a series of powerful drives ended with a knock-on and Tigers were able to relieve the pressure. A deft Walder chip then threatened, but Leicester skipper Matt Cornwell saved the day with a fine piece of covering.
By now heavy rain was falling, a strong wind was blowing and handling was becoming difficult. A Wasps knock-on set up a scrum, at which they were penalised and Humphreys made it three out of three from 30 metres, to put his side 9-8 up on the night - just six points behind on aggregate. The conditions then came to Wasps help, when a Tigers clearance kick was blown backwards by the strong wind. With the defence in confusion and the ball bouncing awkwardly Wasps scrumhalf Mark McMillan darted in to touch down. Walder added the extra points to put his side 13 points ahead overall.
Another Walder penalty from 45 metres, stretched the Wasps lead with eight minutes of the half to go. Resilient in attack Wasps were then only a fingertip away from a third try, as James Brooks just failed to hang on to an interception, with a clear 40 yard run-in to the posts. Leicester responded when fullback Johne Murphy gathered his own kick to burst into the Wasps 22 but a potential scoring pass was knocked on.
The conditions had now eased but the Wasps forwards were enabling Walder's kicking game to set up good field positions and the half ended with the visitors well placed at 52-36 on aggregate.
In the opening of the second half Leicester had an early opportunity to narrow the gap as Humphreys rejected a kickable penalty and opted to go for the corner. At the resultant lineout Tigers were driven backwards by a ferocious Wasps defence, but a sniping run by scrumhalf Ben Youngs then took play to the Wasps line. Another infringement saw Martin Purdy sent to the sin bin and Humphreys made no mistake with an easy penalty.
Leicester took immediate advantage of their numerical superiority, as Humphreys sliced through for a try under the posts, adding the conversion to narrow the overall gap to 6 points. Within a minute Leicester infringed in their own 22 and Walder's resultant penalty pulled Wasps lead back to 21-19.
After the Leicester defence made a mess of a long kick-ahead by Thrower a scrum gave Walder the opportunity to land a neat drop goal. As the referee penalised Wasps in the next scrum, the unerring boot of Humphreys put his side back within nine points. With fifteen minutes left Walder gave his side a little more daylight, with a fine penalty from near halfway.
Wasps now pressed for the score which would make the game safe and a series of phases stretched the home defence, before Thrower was forced into touch at the corner. With seven minutes left an intervention by the touch judge led to a Wasps penalty on the 22, and Walder made no mistake to give his side a fifteen-point aggregate lead.
Tigers now threw everything into a last-ditch attempt to get back into the game, but another touch-judge intervention, just short of the Wasps line saw another penalty awarded to the visitors and the siege was lifted. The game ended with Leicester pressing strongly, but the Wasps defence refused to buckle and Warren Fury's triumphant kick to touch, from behind his own goal-line was the final action of the game.
Head coach Shaun Edwards felt that the second half performance had been the key to victory, "We started a bit poorly but defensively we held out when they went through several sets deep in our half. I thought Dave Walder controlled the game excellently in the second half, his tactical kicking was out of the top drawer."
Despite the Leicester fightback at Henley, Shaun had always been confident of a victory. "We'd scored six tries to their three, and if we'd nailed our goalkicks, we'd have won even more comfortably on aggregate."
He felt that several players had staked a claim for first-team places next season, "There is a big gap between this and the Premiership, but this is a stepping-stone. Hopefully, some of them will have a good summer, come back bigger and stronger and really make that step up. For now, I'm just delighted that we've won the Grand Final and everyone can be really proud of that achievement."
After a home defeat to Harlequins in the opening game of the season, the Wasps A team went on to a run of 12 consecutive wins (plus a game won by default, when Gloucester were unable to put out a team)this season. All credit goes to the players and coaches alike for serving up some exhilarating rugby, which has seen the team end the season with the trophy they so richly deserve. Well done to all.