Rugby Union: Lacroix exposes Wasps' gaping fault lines

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The Independent Online
Harlequins 53

Wasps 17

Nigel Melville thought long and hard before settling on his choice of adjective, but when Wasps' faintly embarrassed and thoroughly harassed director of rugby finally delivered his verdict, there was a definite sense of anti-climax. "We were," he pronounced, "disappointing." Disappointing? What happened to sad, deplorable, inadequate, abject? The reigning champions were not just bad at The Stoop on Saturday, they were treasonable.

Consider this, if you will. Facing an unfamiliar and decidedly vulnerable- looking Harlequins starting line-up shorn, for one reason or another, of Will Carling, Jason Leonard, Keith Wood and Laurent Cabannes, Wasps contrived to concede six tries, all of them fairly daft, in suffering their most comprehensive stuffing in more than a decade of league endeavour. No one had drilled more points past the north Londoners in 150 competitive matches since the early autumn of 1987; never had they been defeated by so great a margin.

Quins' try tally included two laughable interception scores and while Daren O'Leary hardly required the foresight of Nostradamus to cut off Andy Reed's ham-fisted attempt to locate Kenny Logan before running 60 metres to turn the game on the stroke of half-time, it was Gareth Rees who touched new heights of comic genius by arrowing a misdirected gridiron pass into the waiting arms of Tulsen Tollett.

Add a penalty try and the softest of blind-side finishes from O'Leary following a scarcely credible heel against the head by a home front row who had spent all afternoon peering up their own backsides and you have one bad day at the office.

The question now is when Wasps will manage a good day at the office. Taking the Heineken Cup reverse against Brive into account, they have now lost five on the bounce - their worst run of results since Lawrence Dallaglio was taking cold baths and double Latin at Ampleforth.

Legitimately enough, Melville pointed to a debilitating injury list that continues to deprive the champions of Jon Ufton, Damian Hopley, Nick Greenstock, Andy Gomarsall and Will Green, but the fault lines run much deeper than that. Quite simply, Wasps have been found out.

Dallaglio remains an extraordinarily potent force of nature in all phases of the game and given the umpteen pounds of flesh extracted by England over the last month, the energy he poured into of his work at the weekend defied belief. But Wasps' inability to settle on effective replacements for Matt Greenwood and Buster White, whose aggressive and heavily stylised know-how at lock and open-side respectively lay at the very heart of last season's title drive, has narrowed their attacking options and made them far easier to second guess.

There are other problems. The All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies all underlined the immense value of a genuinely fast strike-runner at full- back and while Rees remains a uniquely gifted footballer, he looks more like an Olympic shot-putter than a 100 metre specialist. More worrying still is the sudden collapse of the "black wall" defence, once the pride of Shepherd's Bush but now reduced to rubble. From Hadrian to Jericho in the space of six, short months.

If Melville was in an acute state of puzzled discomfort - "To be quite honest, I don't think we're playing much differently to last season," he said - his opposite number was equally taken aback. Andy Keast, a tactical whizz-kid whose increasingly radical stance on team selection deserves to pay dividends, had not dared expect anything like a 50-point return from a must-win derby.

"We certainly didn't anticipate being able to open up the game so comprehensively," he admitted. "We thought we would have to go right to the wire to get a result."

How gloriously wrong can you get? Once Quins emerged from an occasionally fraught first half with a 12-point lead, courtesy of O'Leary's opportunist breakaway in the 39th minute and 17 points from the right boot of Thierry Lacroix, they were able to use their own extreme pace to counter their rivals' laborious brand of catch-up rugby.

Lacroix enjoyed one of his special days, even though a hitherto successfully concealed stomach bug sent him scurrying to the little boys' room during the interval. ("He was pretty sick, but if he's going to play like that he can have every bug going," grinned Keast). Having contributed three penalties, a brace of drop goals and a conversion during the first 40, the Frenchman completed a full house by running in a 69th-minute try following the most grandiose of Gallic dummies from his countryman, the substitute Cabannes.

Yet it was by no stretch of the imagination a one-man show. The collective gas emitted by O'Leary, Tollett, Laurent Belligoi, Jamie Williams and the outstanding Johnny Ngauamo will almost certainly be on the agenda at the next Kyoto Conference.

On this evidence, Quins will be refreshing their coffers with Heineken Cup money again next year. Sadly for Wasps, there is only one, more traditional Heineken activity likely to interest them in the near future. Drown those sorrows, boys.

Harlequins: Tries O'Leary 2, Williams, penalty try, Lacroix, Tollett. Conversions Lacroix 3, Challinor. Penalties Lacroix 3. Drop goals Lacroix 2. Wasps: Tries Ions, penalty try; Conversions Rees 2; Penalty Rees.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, J Keyter, J Ngauamo (T Tollett, 55), L Belligoi; T Lacroix (P Challinor, 73), N Walshe; D Rouse, T Billups (K Wood, 13), M Cuttitta, G Llewellyn, R Strudwick, R Jenkins (L Cabannes, 53), A Leach, B Davison (capt).

Wasps: G Rees; S Roiser, L Scrase, R Henderson (A James, 81), K Logan; A King, M Wood; D Molloy, S Mitchell (T Leota, 18), I Dunston, M Weedon, A Reed (S Shaw, 57), L Dallaglio (capt), C Sheasby, J Ions (J Worsley, 66).

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).