Pack steal thunder on Cipriani's big day out

Wasps 9 Saracens 0
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The Independent Online

Danny Cipriani, the man of the moment in English rugby even though he is saving his best moments for a new public in Australia, scored all the Wasps points at Adams Park yesterday: indeed, had it not been for the celebrity playmaker and his educated left boot, there would have been no points at all.

Still, he must have left the stadium a little disappointed. As a box-office performer drawn, as if by a magnet, towards the more theatrical side of his chosen sport, he wanted more to show for his week in the public eye than three bog-standard penalties and a wasted try-scoring opportunity.

The outside-half no one in the England hierarchy appears to want to know could, and should, have invaded the red-rose consciousness early in the second half when, roaming down the right touchline in splendid isolation and confronted only by the covering Neil de Kock, he appeared to have a five-point strike at his mercy. A fully tuned-in Cipriani would have left the South African scrum-half flat on his 31-year-old backside and touched down behind the sticks. Instead, he undercooked an attempted chip and saw the chance go to waste.

It was not all bad, by any manner of means: Cipriani rattled the right post with a mighty penalty attempt from well over 50 metres, forced Saracens into retreat with a couple of beautifully judged punts tight to the line and made one searing break from his own 22 – just the kind of stuff his new employers in Melbourne will want to see next season. However, he also dropped Mark van Gisbergen splat in the soup with a daft pass deep in defensive territory and finished a distant second to Kameli Ratuvou in one of the first half's many big-hit contests. Eight minutes from time he was hauled off the field in favour of David Walder and spent the rest of the game next to the coaches' dug-out with an ice pack pressed to his ear.

"I thought he was very committed physically, and for the first 50 minutes he really tried to make things happen," said Tony Hanks, the Wasps director of rugby, who, for entirely understandable reasons, has grown a little tired of the Cipriani circus. "Some of it was heart-in-mouth stuff as far as we coaches were concerned, but then, you don't see such things too often. Will we see the best of him in his remaining weeks here? Gee, I hope so."

Hanks was more comfortable celebrating the contribution of the Samoan prop Sakaria Taulafo, who made a rare old mess of the Saracens set-piece during the first half, might easily have earned his team a penalty try and went a long way towards restoring Wasps' tarnished reputation as a scrummaging outfit.

"He wants it so, so badly," said the man who signed the islander late last year. "He's fitted in well and I'm pleased for him, just as I'm pleased for the pack as a whole. Our front five took a lot of public criticism earlier in the season, so to see them marching back a unit as good as Saracens was very rewarding."

If Taulafo's influence on proceedings was somewhat greater than that of his colleague in the No 10 shirt, so too was the rugby played by the Saracens full-back Alex Goode, who may well press for an England place while Danny-boy is sunning himself in the southern hemisphere. Inventive with ball in hand, highly effective in his lines of running and equipped with a tactical kicking game every bit as potent as Cipriani's, he was unfortunate to finish this derby on the losing side. Come next season, when he will find himself operating at outside-half, he may not lose too often.

Given that Goode could quickly become as big a rugby name as his rival from Wasps, if not as famous on the love-life front, it was reasonable to ask his boss, Brendan Venter, if he was temperamentally equipped to handle the attention. "Absolutely," replied Venter. "Alex is a well-rounded young man with a wise head. We're very keen on him. We'll slide him into the outside-half role and the more he plays there, the more we'll find out about him. At this stage, I'd say there is no limitation on what he can achieve."

Try as he might, Goode could not plot a route through an iron-willed Wasps defence, prepared with the kind of tender, loving care long associated with the tender, loving Shaun Edwards. As a result, Cipriani's short-range penalties were enough to send his side above London Irish in the table and into a play-off position. Not that Venter could quite believe the home side's defensive work was as faultless as it appeared to the match officials.

"I was disappointed with our first-half performance, which lacked intensity," admitted the World Cup-winning Springbok, who would not eat a bowl of muesli with anything less than 100 per cent commitment.

"At Saracens, people aren't criticised for making mistakes. The thing that upsets us is lack of effort. In the second half, however, we played all the rugby and were completely dominant, yet failed to win as much as a penalty. For Wasps not to enter a single ruck from the side or hold onto the ball on the floor on a single occasion ... well, you have to admire them."

While Venter's sarcasm was not lost on Hanks and Edwards, neither of them gave a tinker's cuss. Cipriani Week over and done with, a long-awaited renaissance in the scrum, a top-four place to show for their efforts? Taken together, it added up to sporting nirvana.

Wasps: Pens Cipriani 3.

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey, B Jacobs, S Kefu, T Varndell (D Lemi 78); D Cipriani (D Walder 72), W Fury (M Robinson 68); S Taulafo, R Webber (capt), B Broster, M Veale, G Skivington, J Worsley, S Betsen (W Matthews 55), D Ward-Smith

Saracens: A Goode; N Cato (M Tagicakibau 48), K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard (G Jackson 72), N De Kock (J Marshall 60); M Aguera (R Gill 50), E Reynecke (S Brits 50), R Skuse (T Mercey 40), H Smith, T Ryder (M B0tha 50), W Van Heerden (capt, J Burger 66), A Saull, E Joubert.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

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