Rugby Union: Melville hits the hot spots

Newcastle 19 Wasps 29
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The Independent Online
JUST FOR once, let's hear it for the coach. You'll know him when you see him: he's the grey-haired, grey-faced, track-suited guy sitting in the front row of the stand with his clipboard on his lap, his fingers tightly crossed, his brow soaked in sweat, and his wallet bulging, not with bank notes but with P45s and letters of "unconditional support" from a chairman fluent in double-speak. Why would any intelligent creature subject himself to such frustration, such insecurity, such fear and loathing? Because very occasionally, about once a century, everything falls into place and he enjoys a day in the sun.

Nigel Meville will be boasting one hell of a tan today. Cup final victories at Twickenham are, by their very nature, nectar-sweet experiences; they are sweeter still when they erase the memory of four numbing failures stretching back 13 years. But Melville also has the satisfaction of knowing that he masterminded this one in his head. His was a tangible contribution, every bit as manifest as Alex King's decisive statement at outside-half. If losing a game in selection makes a sinner of a coach, winning one in selection makes a saint of him.

In the week leading into Saturday's showpiece, Melville was faced with more decisions than the average Cabinet Minister. He had a decision to make at full-back, and decisions to make on both wings. He had an option at inside centre, one at scrum-half, one at No 8, and another on the open- side flank. He also needed to come up with the right answer in the goal- kicking department. Choices, choices, choices. The Wasps team sheet looked like a ballot paper issued under the single transferable vote system.

Somehow, Melville hit the hot-spot with each and every call. Take Gareth Rees as an example. "Nigel told me on Wednesday that I'd be playing full- back and kicking," said the lovable Canadian, who played his first final for the club as an 18-year-old schoolboy and now, at 31, is homing in on his fourth World Cup. "I thought: `Gee, I haven't goal-kicked in eight months. I'd better get out there and practice.' I kicked 200 balls in three days and damned near wrecked my groin." Some wreck. Rees kicked six from six to post a record-equalling 16 points.

You need another "for instance"? Step forward Josh Lewsey, a versatile enough sort in the full-back/stand-off mould, but not much of a wing. Until Saturday, that is. Filling the hole created by Kenny Logan's dodgy ankle, he was alert enough to intercept Va'aiga Tuigamala's pass to Stuart Legg and hare in behind the Newcastle posts for a 77th-minute wrap-up try. And, far more importantly, quick enough to gain fully 30 metres on Tuigamala as the mountainous Samoan ploughed down the left touch-line in pursuit of a score that would have blown the game wide open.

"I thought I might catch him. Inga admits himself that his legs are beginning to go a little. But actually bringing him to ground was always going to be a more difficult proposition," admitted Lewsey. "Still, I got pretty used to tackling during the England tour of the southern hemisphere last summer; all we did on that trip was defend like there was no tomorrow. You're learning all the time as a rugby player, but I guess you learn that much more in adversity." Somewhere on his travels, Lewsey learned that, if you grab a piece of shirt and pull hard enough, you can change the world. Tuigamala came crashing to earth four metres short of the line.

In essence, then, there was a touch of the Midas about Melville on Saturday. Having put his faith in Joe Worsley as a bristling, mean-eyed No 7, he was rewarded with a performance that not only justifed his own back-row reshuffle, but fully vindicated Clive Woodward's decision to make an England tourist of the 21-year-old Londoner this summer. "You have to stick with these youngsters and bring them on," said Meville. "They can be frustrating sometimes, but they can be brilliant too. Players like Joe are the future of English rugby. I'd have him on the Test bench now, because he's outstanding in the impact role."

Talking of impacts, it would be difficult to exaggerate King's contribution to Wasps' cause. A sorry enough sight before being obliterated by 15 Maoris in Rotorua last June, and a whole lot sorrier afterwards, he is now the very picture of health, both physically and psychologically. He displayed the full range of outside-half skills: his running was brave and direct, his passing inspired, his kicking secure, his vision boundless. If the try he scored early in the second quarter - an arcing raid from a scrum in centre field, a chip over the head of Legg, and a pressure finish under the nose of captain Gary Armstrong - was worthy of a winner's medal, so was the long-range drop goal with which he began the second half.

Newcastle had little to offer by way of retaliation and their only try, courtesy of Tuigamala, came too late in the day. They were murdered in the loose, rumbled in midfield, and played far too much of their rugby far too deep. "Fair play to Wasps, they did their homework and had us on the back foot all the way through," said Armstrong. "Their forwards really came looking for us; whenever we looked for an overlap there were three or four of them out there."

Two hours after a consoling shower and a "never mind, it's only a game" session at the bar, Newcastle were struck by the second half of a particularly brutal double whammy. Bath, their rivals for a place in next season's European Cup, had planted 76 points on London Scottish, leaving Newcastle the distinctly awkward task of beating Saracens by a clear 30 at Vicarage Road on Thursday. Ah, well. One door closes, another slams in your face.

Newcastle: Try Tuigamala; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties: Wilkinson 4. Wasps: Tries King, Lewsey; Conversions Rees 2; Penalties Rees 4; Drop goal King.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor (T Underwood h-t), M Shaw, T May, V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong (capt); G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter (I Peel 69), G Archer, G Weir, P Walton (J Cartmell H-T), R Beattie, R Arnold.

Wasps: G Rees; J Lewsey, F Waters, M Denney (R Henderson 66), P Sampson (K Logan 46); A King, A Gomarsall (M Friday 48); D Molloy, T Leota, W Green, M Weedon (capt), S Shaw, L Dallaglio, P Scrivener, J Worsley.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).