Three minutes into the second half, Wasps appeared to have the game and the title in the bag. Gareth Rees, with his fourth penalty, had stretched their lead to 10 points, and from the nervous uncertainty of their opening quarter they were moving into the comfort zone of eager anticipation of the celebrations ahead. But, imperceptibly, they began to lose the plot. Their defence, which had looked well-nigh impregnable, started to show signs of stress. Northampton's loose forwards, who had lacked the pace and the brute force to keep their runners on the front foot, somehow gained critical momentum. Most important of all, the referee, who had cast a blind eye to the frequent transgressions of the Wasps' defenders, wised up to the fact that the champions-elect were spending most of the game offside.
Alastair Hepher, deputising for the injured Paul Grayson, having kicked three penalties in the first half, began chipping away at Wasps' lead with two more, his fifth penalty bringing Northampton to within four points with two minutes of normal time remaining. But with injury time to be added, there was still time for Northampton to score the try which had for so long eluded them. They had the right idea but not, unfortunately, the composure or the skill to do it and, as they frantically re-grouped to mount another attack from inside their own half, a loose pass bounced straight into the hands of Kenny Logan, who sped away for his ninth league try in eight appearances to seal victory and the championship.
Earlier in this period of frantic defence, Wasps had been saved by Andy Reed's pulverising tackle on Dave Merlin, which saved a certain try under the posts. If Reed had done nothing else for his club this season, that tackle alone was worth a year's win bonus.
Wasps have relished the opportunities to display their policy of expansionism throughout this campaign but yesterday's triumph was built on sound defence. If they were often trespassing, the fact is that they got away with it, and good luck to them. The undisputed master of the art was the captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, who not only succeeded in getting underneath the referee's radar but, along with his entire three-quarter line, managed to bamboozle both touch judges into the bargain.
In the second half, when Northampton dominated so much of the play, Wasps not only had reason to bless their defence, but they profited from Northampton's unfortunate habit of self-destructing, especially in defensive positions where they almost invariably attempted to run their way out of trouble. They had neither the support for such reckless manoeuvres, nor did they have the kind of blistering pace out wide to catch the opposition off guard.
Hepher, although he displayed some neat touches and at times played with great maturity, also betrayed his naivety at critical moments and too often was ensnared by Wasps' street-wise back row. He was not helped by the departure of Gregor Townsend after just 25 minutes. Nor was Northampton's cause aided by the defensive frailty of Ian Hunter, who so often plays like a world-beater for 10 minutes and a duffer for 70. Yesterday he swallowed up a couple of aimless kicks from his opposite number, Rees, and counter- attacked thrillingly. But then he was afflicted by a loss of concentration, failing wretchedly to tackle Shane Roiser who had taken a long pass from Rees to score Wasps' first try after 26 minutes to give the Londoners the lead.
In many ways, it was typical of the difference between the sides. Throughout, Wasps were sharper, better organised and penetrative. Whereas Northampton would build their attacks at no great speed, Wasps' counter-thrusts were conducted at lightning pace. But their triumph has been achieved not by individual stars but by teamwork, and for this reason alone, Wasps deserve their billing as champions.
Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, G Townsend (C Moir, 25), M Allen, H Thorneycroft; A Hepher, M Dawson (capt); M Volland, A Clarke, M Stewart, J Phillips, M Bayfield, S Foale, D Merlin, J Cassell.
Wasps: G Rees; S Roiser, N Greenstock, R Henderson, K Logan; A King (J Ufton, 78), M Wood; D Molloy, S Mitchell, W Green, M Greenwood, A Reed (D Cronin, 78), L Dallaglio (capt), C Sheasby, M White.
Referee: G Hughes (Manchester).Reuse content