Rugby: Swansea stone-walled

Swansea 25 Wasps 31
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The Independent Online
Lawrence Dallagio calls it "the black wall" and when push came to shove in a compelling Heineken Cup contest at St Helens yesterday, the immovable object just about shaded things against the unstoppable force.

Wasps, their back row in complete control in all the areas that really mattered, won a match within a match against Swansea's supremely gifted midfield axis and, as a result, look set fair for a place in the knock- out phase.

Largely thanks to a Welsh willingness to run hard-earned possession from anywhere West of the Severn Bridge - Swansea were full of ideas in the heavy traffic and rapid in the wider acres - the match was played on an agreeably broad canvas. Yet the proceedings were illuminated most brightly by the inter-personal vignettes which saw Arwell Thomas and Scott Gibbs pit their Little and Large act against Dallaglio, Buster White and the rest of the unforgiving tackle obsessives in the Wasps pack.

At the break, the All-Whites were all smiles. Their 18-10 advantage may have been the direct result of a single purple patch between the 22nd and 28th minutes, during which they ran in two of the sharpest tries imaginable, but with Thomas balanced beautifully on the hazardously thin tightrope of his rugby imagination and both David Weatherley and Matthew Back tuning into the same wavelength, Swansea appeared perfectly capable of running Wasps off their street-wise feet.

That they failed to do so was entirely due to Dallaglio and his forwards, who built on an already stark advantage at the set scrums by wrapping up the second-half line-outs, rucks and mauls into the bargain. It was a virtual shut-out with the captain embellishing his customary all-action contribution with athletic efforts at the tail of the line-out to deny Thomas the oxygen of clean ball just when the Wales outside-half was breathing fire.

"I wasn't too displeased with our first-half performance although I was frustrated at our failure to retain the ball," said Dallaglio. "We had the edge at the set-piece and the benefit of the wind after the break, so once we put up the black wall and forced Swansea onto the back foot, we were in a position to win. Apart from anything else, its the first time I've left St Helens with a victory."

Wasps were on the board within eight minutes, Rob Henderson muscling his way over courtesy of the Londoners' own ideas man, Alex King. But when Thomas, who kicked magnificently throughout, landed a 50-metre penalty with his first attempt and then Alan Harris, the Swansea left wing, intercepted Nick Greenstock's ill-advised chip-kick and sprinted clear to the corner flag, the Welsh men had their noses in front.

Weatherley steamed in for a second Swansea try just six minutes later, a score cleverly manufactured by Gibbs and Back and enhanced by a majestic touch-line conversion from Thomas. Gareth Rees reeled in Swansea to a degree with a penalty on the interval whistle, but the Londoners were now acutely aware of the threat confronting them.

Time to cut the coat to suit the available cloth. Chris Sheasby, impressive in his very own high-stepping style, made the line from short range after a ferocious line-out drive and then, nine minutes into the half, Henderson grabbed his second score following a superb cover tackle by King on Harris, a Gridiron pass from Rees and some slick hands from the back row.

Swansea were forced to run everything and, predictably, fell victim to their own panic and the whistle of Jim Fleming, the Scottish international referee.

Rees slotted straight-forward penalties on 56 and 64 minutes and even though Ian Buckett, a front row replacement for Christian Loader, made the line to pull Swansea back to within a point, Wasps retained their composure and completed the job two minutes from time.

Sheasby flipped the ball between his legs from the base of a scrum and Andy Gomarsall sent Kenny Logan in unchallenged with the Swansea defence still engaged in a bout of collective head-scratching.

Swansea: Tries Harris, Weatherley, Buckett; Conversions Thomas 2; Penalties Thomas 2. Wasps: Tries Henderson 2, Sheasby, Logan; Conversion Rees; Penalties Rees 3.

Swansea: M Back; R Rees, D Weatherley, S Gibbs, A Harris; A Thomas, A Booth; C Loader (I Buckett, 68), G Jenkins (Capt), C Anthony, T Maullin, P Arnold, R Appleyard, P Moriarty, D Thomas.

Wasps: G Rees; S Roiser, N Greenstock, R Henderson, K Logan; A King, A Gomarsall; D Molloy, S Mitchell, I Dunston (W Green, 48), M Weedon, A Reed (S Shaw, 74), L Dallaglio (Capt), C Sheasby, M White.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).