The driving maul has been coming back into fashion all season, and the Premiership's most devoted exponents, Northampton, used it determinedly to the last minute to enhance their hopes of a fourth successive appearance in the Premiership play-offs. "It's one way of playing a game and on a wet and windy day it's very effective," said Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, whose forwards coach, Dorian West, wore the widest smile at the final whistle while many of home supporters were booing the referee, David Rose.
The Plymouth official had already sent three Wasps forwards to the sin-bin when he gave the penalty against the home team's rumbustious No 8 Billy Vunipola for being in front of the kicker that allowed a last, crucial piece of territorial gain. Using the inevitable – and, from Wasps' view, sadly unstoppable – maul, it led to Christian Day's try near the posts, converted for the win by Steve Myler.
"Certainly our players were disappointed with the last three penalties against us," said Dai Young, Mallinder's Wasps counterpart. "Northampton had a weapon and they didn't try to or really need to play any other way. The secret we'd talked about all week was not giving them the field positions to do it. They weren't causing us many problems otherwise."
Something in the two main planks of the form guide had to crack, as Wasps had won all seven of their previous Premiership home matches this season but Northampton had beaten them in the seven meetings (six in the league and one in the LV= Cup) since October 2009.
Saints immediately set about ignoring kicks at goal in light snow and with a wind in Myler's face, and setting up maul after maul. Still it appeared indecently early when Wasps' hooker Rhys Thomas went to the sin-bin for pulling down in the eighth minute, to be followed by Tom Palmer – on the England lock's first appearance for three months after a calf injury – after 32 minutes. The Thomas offence gave Northampton a penalty try, converted by Myler, and Palmer's card led to a line-out caught by the regular Northampton target, Samu Manoa, from which Dylan Hartley drove over and Myler converted. In between those tries a rumbling drive on the left flank had referee Rose again indicating a penalty, but Saints' scrum-half Lee Dickson dived over in the second wave anyway.
So how did Wasps, who retain strong hopes of a Heineken Cup place, jog in at the interval fairly bushy-tailed at only 19-16 down? Through a mixture of well-known skills plus the valuable intervention by the diamond-bright wing Christian Wade in the rough stuff. Elliot Daly's 55-metre penalty had Wasps 7-3 behind before Wade foraged to turn Saints over on the floor and an uncomplicated and urgent transfer from right to left via Vunipola got the ball to the Premiership's most reliable finisher, Tom Varndell.
Even with the former Leicester wing about 40 metres from the goalline a swelling noise from the crowd suggested they knew a try was on. Sure enough, with a hitch- kick and a sprint, Varndell burst clear of a weak tackle by James Wilson and two other Saints for his 12th league try of the season. Stephen Jones's conversion and 39th-minute penalty completed a gripping first half.
Wade is one of those youngsters England will take a look at on the summer tour to Argentina that may also include a match in Uruguay; ditto Vunipola, who has signed to join his brother Mako at Saracens. New money from an Irish investor is reportedly imminent at Wasps.
Meanwhile, Mallinder said nothing to dispel the suggestion that Wales wing George North is soon coming to Franklin's Gardens.
Yesterday, the question was what difference the introduction of half-a -dozen internationals from the benches would make. Wasps' starters had managed to repel one maul before Joe Launchbury and James Haskell, last seen for England in Wales, came on with Saints' Tom Wood and Brian Mujati. The next scrum, a successful shove for Wasps, hinted they might just get out of their tight-forwards' fix. Even more so when another Myler penalty to touch came to nothing and Wasps went upfield for Jones to level the scores, followed by a brilliant try from Daly, who took a pass from Hugo Southwell to dance down the left past four Saints, including Ben Foden. It prompted Myler, finally, to go for goal, but the kick fell short before Ashley Johnson became the third Wasp to be shown a yellow card.
Repeated penalties and drives ended with Saints' Courtney Lawes cut down by the limping Varndell's replacement, Andrea Masi, to concede a penalty to Wasps for holding. But Vunipola's impuslive drift towards the ball when he ought to have hung back gave Northampton one last chance, and they took it.
London Wasps: H Southwell (capt); C Wade, E Daly, C Bell, T Varndell (A Masi, 59); Stephen Jones (N Robinson, 62), J Simpson; T Payne (Z Taulafo, 48), T R Thomas (T Lindsay, 52), P Swainston, T Palmer (J Launchbury, 48), M Wentzel, A Johnson, B Vunipola, Sam Jones (J Haskell, 48).
Tries: Varndell, Daly. Con: Stephen Jones. Pens: Daly, Stephen Jones 3
Northampton Saints: B Foden; J Wilson, G Pisi, D Waldouck, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson (M Roberts, 55); S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), T Mercey (B Mujati, 48), C Lawes, C Day, S Manoa, GJ van Velze (T Wood, 48), P Dowson.
Tries: Penalty try, Dickson, Hartley, Day. Cons: Myler 3
Referee: D Rose (Plymouth).