The colour in Phil Vickery's cheeks matched the cerise of Cardiff Blues' shirts long before this Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final was over, but for all the yeoman Wasps prop's great work in the scrummage, there were too many gaps elsewhere. The Blues reached their first European final and they will relish meeting the French moneybags Toulon – Jonny Wilkinson et al – in a rampantly partisan Marseilles three weeks today. "If we can get our best team on the field we're more than a match for anybody," said Dai Young, the Blues' director of rugby.
Young's team scored two tries to nil and could have had a couple more; Wasps, for all many hard yards gained by Vickery and co in the scrum, were second-best at the breakdown and lacking the dog which had seen them through three European semi-finals and to victories in this competition in 2003 and the Heineken in 2004 and 2007. It was their last home match of the season and three departing players did a rain-lashed lap of honour; Danny Cipriani donated his boots to two young fans. The Blues' full-back and kicker, Ben Blair, might have considered giving his up after three misses in the first half hour but he was on target thereafter.
So this season's new format of three teams dropping into the Challenge Cup from the Heineken has worked out for the Blues, who were knocked out of Toulouse's pool in the premier competition. A year ago Martyn Williams was undone in a place-kick shoot-out in the Heineken semi- finals; yesterday he joined with the outstanding Xavier Rush and Ma'ama Molitika to force Wasps back and ease the task of a third-choice scrum-half, Darren Allinson.
Few in Europe are more effective than Rush around the fringes and the No 8 did the trick from a scrum in the 22 to the left of the Wasps posts in the 28th minute. He tapped a free-kick, bounced off the Wasps scrum-half, Joe Simpson, and set up a ruck. Moving left to right, Ceri Sweeney and the hooker Rhys Thomas fed Leigh Halfpenny, who made tidy work of stepping inside Mark van Gisbergen for a try and a 5-3 lead after Dave Walder's penalty for Wasps. The conversion was missed by Blair.
Walder, preferred as the starting fly-half to Cipriani, stuck penalties after 31 and 34 minutes. The French referee, Romain Poite, presided over a black-jerseyed embarrassment in the scrum at Leicester in January, but this was different with Vickery having returned for his first start since October, following a neck operation. As he and his side forced a Blues front row containing another Lion, Gethin Jenkins, backwards and upwards there must have been approving nods from the watching England scrum coach, Graham Rowntree. Though Blair chipped over his first successful kick for a ruck penalty, Wasps led 9-8 at the break and moved further ahead when Jenkins took the first scrum of the second half down. Vickery grinned, Walder kicked: 12-8.
That was as good as it got for Wasps. Blair found his range from 45 metres: 12-11 to the Blues. And nothing Simon Shaw did found favour with Monsieur Poite, culminating in a yellow card for the 36-year-old lock for joining a ruck from the side in the 55th minute. Halfpenny's 60-metre kick fell short but Shaw's punishment arrived soon enough. Driving hard, the Blues worked Jenkins over at the posts and Blair converted for an 18-12 lead.
Wasps lost their captain, Tom Rees – off, worryingly, to have ice applied to his troublesome knee – and though Walder landed a fourth penalty after 62 minutes, the territorial and possession statistics were a strong shade of Cardiff cerise. Cipriani had done some sparkling things at Worcester and Twickenham on the previous two weekends but also gifted the opposition a try in each. He was given 10 minutes at full-back to effect a turnaround. But the Blues were not keen on giving him or any other Wasp the ball.
It took a yellow card to the replacement prop, Scott Andrews, at yet another backpedalling scrum to give Wasps a late boost. Walder's difficult kick to level the scores from the 10m line, with the rain beating down, faded right to left across the posts. Wasps must now concentrate on their slim chance of reaching the Premiership play-offs; the Blues are marginally better placed in the Magners League – but they will always have Marseilles.
London 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, D Ward-Smith, T Rees (capt; S Betsen, 59).
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), X Rush, M Williams.
Referee: R Poite (France).