Rees enjoys home gains: Rugby

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The Independent Online
Wasps are beginning to enjoy their long weekends in English rugby's equivalent of a stately home. Compared to most Courage League grounds, Loftus Road is an upper-crust sanctuary of Brideshead proportions, and if their remaining guests show the sort of inferiority complex that struck Gloucester dumb yesterday afternoon, the Londoners may just go on to take the title.

No one has fitted into the sumptuous surroundings more easily than Gareth Rees, the one-off Canadian who looks like a prop, passes like Joe Montana and kicks like God. But then Rees is still on the teaching staff at Eton, so the high life holds no fears for him.

Certainly, Rees was in his element as Wasps re-established a two-point lead at the top of the table by slapping down their outclassed visitors, 36-10. It looked as though it might be the sort of day for an educated man when the Loftus Road groundstaff decided to leave the Queen's Park Rangers soccer markings on the pitch; when Gloucester ran out, they were confronted with a surface that looked like a proposition from Pythagoras.

"If we kicked long to Rees, he ran it back at us and made us suffer," said Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach. "We seemed to find him pretty regularly and he enjoyed every minute of it." Add to that the burly Canadian's accomplished defence - Loftus Road being the narrowest first-class pitch in the country, there was simply no room to run round him - and an almost impeccable kicking display that brought him 21 points and an eight from nine return, and the Cherry and Whites were looking at one formidable opponent.

Hill was also deeply impressed by Wasps' ability to disguise their perceived shortcomings at the sharp end. "People say: `Take 'em on up front, squeeze their tight five and win the game'. And, to be honest, their front five is not as strong as the best units in the First Division, at least on paper.

"But they do many other things very well indeed, and from what I saw out there they are perfectly capable of winning the championship."

Which, if it comes to pass, will provoke a riot of word-swallowing from all sectors of the rugby community. The Wasps' heavy mob have been so roundly damned as a bunch of lightweights that it was a shock to the system yesterday to see how comfortably Andy Reed handled David Sims at the line- out. And it was an even greater surprise to spot Darren Molloy and Will Green, the young props, dousing the fire and fury of the visiting front- row before galloping around the paddock like flankers.

Wasps have some character about them, too, and needed to show it yesterday. Gloucester caught their hosts cold with a second-minute try from Chris Catling, a full-back who shares Rees' penchant for running inventive angles in attack but brings rather less ballast to the fray, and for 20 minutes or so they looked capable of turning the Shepherd's Bush garden party into a bar-room bash.

Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, was given a yellow card for a flash of off-the-ball temper while his England colleague Andy Gomarsall struggled to exert even the slightest degree of control. Yet outside him, Alex King looked cool, detached and confident. Short of genuine gas he may be, but his slide-rule half-breaks gave Dallaglio, Chris Sheasby and Buster White any amount of targets to hit at pace.

Fittingly, the England squad stand-off orchestrated a long, strength- sapping attack as the clock ticked down towards the interval and finished it off in the right-hand corner to give his side the lead. That was the last Gloucester saw of their opponents.

King was heavily involved again after the break, selling the Gloucester back-row a double dummy and slipping through a quarter-gap to win Rees a simple penalty shot. When he then found Rob Henderson, a Rees-sized centre if ever there was one, with a slippery little pass from which the Irishman picked the lock for Nick Greenstock, Wasps' title challenge was safely intact.

Shane Roiser's runaway score in the 76th minute, the direct result of a Martin Roberts fumble in a dangerously exposed position, was almost an irrelevance, except for the fact that it bolstered the Londoners' points difference by another seven.

But as Nigel Melville, the Wasps director of rugby, said afterwards: "If we just keep winning, it won't come down to that."

Wasps: Tries King, Greenstock, Roiser; Conversions Rees 3; Penalties Rees 5. Gloucester: Try Catling; Conversion Mapletoft; Penalty Mapletoft.

Wasps: G Rees; S Roiser, N Greenstock, R Henderson, K Logan (J Ufton, 38); A King, A Gomarsall; D Molloy, S Mitchell, W Green, D Cronin (M Greenwood, 5), A Reed, L Dallaglio (capt), C Sheasby, M White.

Gloucester: C Catling; M Peters, D Caskie, M Roberts, M Lloyd; M Mapletoft (M Kimber, 59), S Benton (L Beck, h-t); A Windo, P Greening, A Deacon (P Vickery, 59), R Fidler, D Sims, P Glanville, S Devereux, N Carter (A Stanley, 59).

Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire).