Not so very long ago, Wasps flew directly in the face of rugby orthodoxy by winning major titles without a scrum worthy of the name.
Then, some bright spark came up with the idea of the 23rd man – an additional front-row replacement whose presence effectively closed the loophole of uncontested set-pieces, which the Londoners had frequently used in the way the idle rich use offshore bank accounts. This development promised to hurt Wasps, and hurt them badly.
Promises were made to be broken, it seems. Under the guidance of Trevor Woodman, perhaps the least celebrated of the tight unit that drove England towards a world title in 2003 but far from the least influential, the Londoners have sharpened their act up front to the extent that the best scrummaging sides in the Premiership are finding themselves seriously inconvenienced.
Yesterday, the much-maligned – Tim Payne – and the barely recognised – Ben Broster – ripped into a London Irish front row boasting Faan Rautenbach, a former Springbok of the extremely substantial variety, and made their collective life a misery for much of the first half, ending it 23-10 to the good. In a performance full of dash and movement, there were more aesthetically pleasing things to admire: the pace of Joe Simpson, the midfield craft of Dominic Waldouck, the energetic work of Dan Ward-Smith and George Skivington in the loose. But the most important deeds were being done where it hurts, and if Wasps continue to prosper there, they will fancy their chances of another title.
"We're building a scrum we can play off, and that makes a massive difference," said Tony Hanks, their director of rugby. "We had a lot of young players and a lot of inexperience in our front-row ranks, especially after we lost Phil Vickery to injury, so we've had to keep working hard. Trevor has been central to that. He forged himself a good reputation while coaching over in Australia and we knew he'd be a real plus for us if we could get him here."
It is not often that London Irish, so cleverly coached for so long, can be said to have an air of helplessness about them, but they were 13 points adrift by the end of the first quarter – if the early penalty try awarded to Wasps had a distinctly dodgy look about it, there was something deserving about the alert contributions of Simpson and David Lemi before the latter was dragged down illegally by Steffon Armitage – and even when the Exiles pulled to within a score through Seilala Mapusua's close-range finish on 24 minutes, they were not spared the "Phil Brown treatment".
As Ryan Lamb was lining up his conversion, his 14 colleagues were summoned to the touchline for a close encounter of the bollocking kind with Toby Booth, their head honcho. "I was surprised by some of the things we were doing – things I thought we'd put behind us," said Booth, who chose to make his points while the game was in progress rather than follow Brown's example and keep his side on the field at half-time. This was probably as well. The last thing London Irish need is to go the way of Hull City.
"We don't do our post-mortems in public," Booth continued. "We like to take care of business in-house. But it's important that we look at certain aspects of this performance because in general, you expect to take something from a game if you score 22 points on the road. I'm not fazed, however. I was impressed by the way we worked ourselves back into the game – long gone are the days when London Irish would fold up and go home when things went against them – but our failure to maintain that foothold was very disappointing."
Talking of disappointments, Booth was less than impressed by what he considered to be inconsistencies in the refereeing of Rob Debney, who lists "languages" among his interests and might as well have been talking in ancient Hittite as far as the Exiles were concerned. "If that was a penalty try for Wasps – and I'm told Lemi's kick ahead was going dead – then you can't tell me that Steve Kefu's yellow-card offence in front of the sticks with a four-on-three overlap available to us wasn't a penalty try as well," Booth remarked. Unfortunately for him, Debney effectively told him precisely that.
But on the balance of probabilities, Wasps would have won going away even if the Exiles had taken seven points from the incident rather than three. The second of Wasps' first-half tries was a gem – Waldouck, surely worthy of investigation by the England hierarchy, slipped away from Lamb before finding Tom Varndell with an intelligent diagonal kick towards the flag – while Ward-Smith's score in the same corner had something of the unstoppable about it after Simpson, Waldouck and Danny Cipriani had manufactured a mismatch out wide.
After the break, Cipriani and Waldouck were at it again, beating the Exiles for pace in a thrilling attack that earned their side the bonus point they craved. The fact that London Irish won the last quarter, claiming a couple of five-pointers through Armitage and James Tideswell, was irrelevant. Neither score was much to write home about: in fact, they were poor man's fare compared to the clean-cut strikes against them. Wasps are now back in the play-off zone at their neighbours' expense, and the force is with them.
Wasps: Tries Penalty try, Varndell, Ward-Smith, Waldouck; Conversions Walder, Cipriani; Penalties Walder 2, Cipriani.
London Irish: Tries Mapusua, S Armitage, Tideswell; Conversions Lamb, Homer; Penalty Lamb.
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; T Varndell, D Waldouck, S Kefu (B Jacobs, 52), D Lemi; D Walder (D Cipriani, 40+4), J Simpson (W Fury, h-t; P Sackey, 76); T Payne, R Webber (T Lindsay, 86), B Broster (S Taulafo, 62), D Ward-Smith, G Skivington, J Worsley, T Rees (capt, S Betsen, 52), J Hart.
London Irish: P Hewat; J Rudd, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua (T Homer, 51), D Armitage; R Lamb (C Malone, 62), P Hodgson; D Murphy (A Corbisiero, 50), J Buckland (D Coetzee, 73), F Rautenbach (J Tideswell, 73), K Roche, R Casey (capt, M Garvey, 66), G Stowers (J Gibson, 47), S Armitage, C Hala'ufia.
Referee: R Debney (Leicestershire).Reuse content