Simpson dazzles as Wasps defy convention

Wasps 24 Leicester 22: Livewire scrum-half sets up two tries to press home his England credentials
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The Independent Online

During the middle years of this decade, Wasps took mischievous delight in turning rugby orthodoxy on its head by winning trophies without the benefit of a fully functional scrum – or, come to that, a line-out worthy of the name. On the evidence of yesterday's proceedings in front of a five-figure crowd at Adams Park, unusually large by current High Wycombe standards, there is life in the old master plan yet. The Londoners were not simply outscrummaged in the opening half, they were obliterated. Did it matter? Did it hell.

Leicester have long played this game on the basis of a straightforward philosophy: namely, that if you grab the opposition by the balls, their hearts and minds will surely follow. Unfortunately for them, Wasps were far too good when it came to grabbing the ball – in the air, on the floor, out of the tackle, wherever – and when, after the interval, they found a way of stabilising their set-piece, they pulled away from their great rivals with a degree of confidence that will alarm the rest of the Premiership.

Joe Simpson, their 21-year-old scrum-half, played with an entire team's worth of assurance and his performance against another of England's more gifted young half-backs, Ben Youngs, was a striking confirmation of top-drawer pedigree. "We all know Joe has the zip, the razzle-dazzle skills that excite a crowd," said the Wasps head coach Shaun Edwards, who razzled and dazzled with the best of them during his days of mastery in rugby league. "Today, we also saw the element of control that will be so important when he steps up to international level. It was a performance of considerable maturity."

Simpson created his side's early opening try by tapping a penalty to himself and freeing Paul Sackey down the right. Then, at the back end of the half, he interested the Leicester defence sufficiently to buy David Walder enough time in midfield to conjure a scoring pass for Steve Kefu, who ran an intelligent line on the stand-off's shoulder to finish under the sticks. Leicester, all grunt and groan, had little to set against Simpson's scampering energy, and but for a wrestling score from Jordan Crane in the 86th minute, they would not even have managed a consolation bonus point.

It was a day of surprises, far from the least of them being the hosts' willingness to play in the first place. It had, after all, been raining. Perhaps the proximity of this afternoon's Premiership inquiry into the late postponement of their game at Sale a little over a week previously had something to do with it. Wasps' flat refusal to participate on that occasion, despite the presence of several thousand spectators in the ground, may yet earn them a reprimand or worse, especially as the match officials were happy to press ahead with the contest. "We're hoping for a common-sense decision," said Tony Hanks, their director of rugby. So too are Sale, and there's the rub.

None of this cramped the Londoners' style here. Despite the close-quarter punishment meted out by the visiting props Marcos Ayerza and Dan Cole, they played most, if not all, of the brighter rugby, restricting Leicester to a meagre diet of penalty shots from Toby Flood, who had what might best be described as an "interesting" day with the boot. Some of his successful kicks were beautifully struck, but there was also a triple whammy of pratfalls that suggested he is still some way from rediscovering the best of himself after a long injury lay-off.

In the 18th minute, when he attempted a long-range shot after Leicester had driven the Wasps pack fully 30 metres downfield, the England outside-half hooked horribly and fell flat on his posterior for good measure. His sliced clearance just before the break presented the opposition with the line-out from which Kefu scored, and at the start of the second period, he achieved the barely credible feat of drop-kicking a restart behind his forwards rather than in front of them. Flood also miscued a penalty attempt in the 67th minute that would have brought his side to within a converted try of the lead.

Still, if it was not Flood's day with the boot, there were some characteristically subtle touches with ball in hand – the kind of touches wholly absent from England's performances during the autumn international series at Twickenham. One clean break in the opening half was positively Larkham-esque – as in Steve Larkham, the marvellous Wallaby outside-half who played in both the 1999 and 2003 World Cup finals – and there are many poor, put-upon members of the paying public who long to see something similar in the Test arena.

Staying with this subject, another of England's more artistic No 10s, Danny Cipriani, will turn out for Wasps in a second-string fixture against Harlequins at Henley this evening – always assuming, of course, that the playing surface does not befit a regatta rather than a game of rugby. Having spent yesterday afternoon manacled to the replacements' bench, he will savour the opportunity.

The next time Wasps meet Leicester, at Welford Road early next month, Cipriani and Flood could find themselves in direct opposition, testing each other imaginatively as well as physically. It may not mean much to the current England hierarchy, but it would surely entertain the masses.

Wasps: Tries Sackey, Kefu; Conversion Walder; Penalties Walder (4). Leicester Try Crane; Conversion Mauger; Penalties Flood (5).

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey, D Waldouck, S Kefu (B Jacobs, 57), T Varndell; D Walder, J Simpson; T Payne, R Webber, B Broster, S Shaw, R Birkett (D Leo, 57), J Hart (W Matthews, 84), S Betsen (capt), D Ward-Smith.

Leicester: S Hamilton; J Murphy (A Tuilagi, 51), A Allen, A Mauger (capt), L Tuqiri; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza, M Davies (G Chuter, 51), D Cole, L Deacon (B Kay, 72), G Parling, B Deacon (C Newby, 64), L Moody, J Crane.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

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