A decline has set in at Wasps – a gently downward slope, rather than a vertiginous fall, but clear and present nonetheless – and it was emphasised by this European Challenge Cup semi-final defeat. Cardiff Blues have suffered growing pains as a region but they are beginning to clock up victories that suggest a brighter future. The horizon at Wasps, champions of England four times from 2003 to 2008 and of Europe in 2004 and 2007, is full of clouds as black as their jerseys.
Wasps had home advantage, a history of victory in their three previous European semi-finals and a dominant scrum in which Phil Vickery played like a world-beater. But they lost because in the dozens of little decisions they had lesser men making them than Cardiff, who will now contest the final with Toulon in Marseilles on 23 May.
You would have the guts of a fine XV from the players who have departed Wasps, or are about to, in just two years: Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Fraser Waters, Tom Voyce, Jeremy Staunton, Riki Flutey, Paul Sackey, Danny Cipriani, Eoin Reddan, Lachlan Mitchell, Mark Robinson, Tom Palmer, James Haskell, Raphael Ibanez, Dan Leo and George Skivington. On the coaching front, Sir Ian McGeechan has gone too. The retirements of Dallaglio, Lewsey, Ibanez and Robinson were unavoidable but the rest have joined other clubs. The replacements for next season, including Flutey who is returning from Brive, will have to go some to make up the shortfall.
On a chill and rainy May Day, no one made less of a song and a dance of his work than Xavier Rush, yet no one understood more about what was needed. The Blues' No 8 battered Wasps around the fringes and if he sometimes ignored a profitable offload, it did not matter. Blues trailed 9-8 at half-time, but they had the only try when Rush tapped a scrum free-kick and the ball flashed left to right for Leigh Halfpenny to show off his finishing talent.
Ben Blair missed the conversion but the full-back knocked over two kicks in the second half including the conversion of a second Blues try by Gethin Jenkins from a line-out drive. Dave Walder, who started ahead of Cipriani at fly-half, kicked five penalties for Wasps before he missed a difficult 45-metre chance with four minutes left that might have forced extra-time.
Both sides are assured of qualifying for the Heineken Cup through their league position, and Wasps' head coach Shaun Edwards remained bullish. "It's been a transitional season and you look at losing twice to Leeds, away to Sale – these are games that came back to haunt us. Yes, we would have loved to have won a trophy but a minimum aim was to get back in the Heineken Cup and we've done that. Our owner [Steve Hayes] has been fantastic and he will fill our salary cap."
Vickery, making his third appearance and first start after a fourth neck operation that kept him out for six months, was unsure whether he would be asked to tour with England this summer. "I have not heard anything from the hierarchy," the 33-year-old said. "[England scrum coach] Graham Rowntree keeps in touch but 'Wig' is more a friend than anything. I'm three weeks back from something fairly major, I'm feeling a little bit more confident and much better about myself."
Toulon crept past Connacht 19-12 in last Friday's other semi-final but Cardiff director of rugby Dai Young predicted: "They might attack and show a bit more flair in their own backyard." The gradual infusion of the returning Martyn Williams, Jenkins and Jamie Roberts has strengthened Young's hand and the Blues can reach the Magners League play-offs if they defeat Munster in Cardiff on Sunday. A showpiece win in Marseilles would be another feather in their chapeau.
Scorers: London Wasps: Penalties Walder 5.
Cardiff Blues: Tries Halfpenny, Jenkins; Conversion Blair; Penalties Blair 2.
Wasps M van Gisbergen (D Cipriani, 70); P Sackey, B Jacobs, D Waldouck, D Lemi (T Varndell, 73); D Walder, J Simpson; T Payne (Z Taulafo, 48), R Webber (T Lindsay, 35-40), P Vickery, S Shaw, G Skivington, J Worsley, T Rees (capt; S Betsen, 59), D Ward-Smith.
Cardiff Blues B Blair; L Halfpenny, C Laulala, J Roberts, C Czekaj; C Sweeney, D Allinson; G Jenkins, TR Thomas (G Williams, 77), T Filise (S Andrews, 54), D Jones, P Tito (capt; B Davies, 54), M Molitika (J Yapp, 73), M Williams, X Rush.
Referee R Poite (France).