When you fiddle and fumble your way out of the Heineken Cup by losing to Glasgow in front of two men and no dog – there was a distinct lack of canine interest at Firhill last week to go with the shortage of human interest – it is fairly safe to assume that a follow-up game against Toulouse, four-times champions of Europe and about the most brilliant club side in world rugby, is the last thing a team needs. Fairly safe, but not entirely. Sometimes, if the attitude is right and the flow of competitive juices is fast and deep enough, players respond best when the odds are at their longest.
Wasps have been blessed with such players for years now. Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley and Serge Betsen never shirked a challenge in their lives, and judging by the performances of the younger generation here yesterday, the bloody-mindedness that has defined the thirtysomething brigade ever since they were twentysomethings has been successfully passed down. Toulouse discovered this to their cost, losing to a try scored with 46 seconds left on the clock, and as a consequence they face the considerable challenge of defending their title on the road.
David Lemi, the dinky Samoan wing, was responsible for the late touchdown, created by the excellent England squad scrum-half Joe Simpson. With the game squared at 16-apiece and the French side looking the more likely to pinch it, Simpson ran right off a ruck, slid the cleverest of kicks between Cédric Heymans and Jean-Baptiste Poux and punched the air in triumph as Lemi won the race to the in-goal area. Toulouse, who had travelled in full warpaint with all their big names on the teamsheet, were flabbergasted – not a feeling with which they are terribly familiar.
The game, spiked with overt physicality and spiced by the flourishing of cards both red and yellow, just about rescued an unusually flat conclusion to the Heineken Cup pool stage. Back in the days when God was in his heaven and European rankings were no more than a twinkle in the eye of some misguided administrator, all 12 last-weekend matches tended to be "live". Now, with the powerful shielded from the powerful by a seeding system few like and no one fully understands, too many games have an overpowering whiff of the dodo about them. Had the Londoners not dragged something special out of themselves yesterday, the round-robin finale would have generated the kind of spine-tingling tension associated with a below-par Jeffrey Archer thriller.
For a worrying 20 minutes or so there was an air of Archerism about these proceedings. Toulouse, armed with a stellar back division operating behind a formidable pack drawn from four continents, set up camp in the Wasps half and won every contest worth winning, including the penalty count, which stood at 6-0 in their favour by the time David Walder announced Wasps' existence with a penalty. Toulouse were already on the board to the tune of seven points by this stage, Yannick Jauzion beating three tackles down the left after some high-ball acrobatics from Clément Poitrenaud and some typically subtle link work from Maxime Médard.
Then the tide turned. After a bout of catchweight fisticuffs in front of the dug-outs – in the red corner, the powerful Toulouse locks Yoann Maestri and Patricio Albacete; in the blue, a couple of pint-sized Wasps backs – the visiting No 8, Louis Picamoles, was sent to the cooler for shirt-pulling: a minor misdemeanour under the circumstances but punishable nonetheless. During the back-rower's absence, Walder maximised a long bout of pressure by plotting a route to the line for the substitute full-back Richard Haughton.
Walder converted and added penalties either side of the break, the second of which resulted from the key act of the afternoon. Alain Rolland, one of the more capable members of the refereeing community, showed a straight red card to Florian Fritz in response to the Toulouse midfielder's slam-dunk tackle on Tom Varndell, who had been one of the instigators of the fun and games at the backend of the first half. Truth be told, it was far from being the worst such incident in rugby history. Varndell was not speared into the turf head first; indeed, it was a moot point whether Fritz had tipped him past the horizontal at all. But he did hit the deck with a resounding thud and there were few complaints from the visitors after close of play.
Toulouse reorganised cleverly, withdrawing their flanker Yannick Nyanga and introducing Heymans as a means of keeping their back line together. It almost did the trick, David Skrela landing a straightforward penalty on 50 minutes and two more early in the final quarter to level things up.
The outside-half was wide with an attempted drop-goal as the clock ticked down, but even then it looked as though the champions had done enough to secure a home quarter-final against Toulon. Unfortunately for them, Lemi handed them an awkward trip to Biarritz instead.
And Wasps' prize? An Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final visit to... wait for it... Harlequins, whom they have played at least twice a year every year since Noah was beating defenders two by two. If Tony Hanks described the prospect as "exotic", there was just a chance he was joking. He was not, however, fooling around when he spoke of his players' fighting spirit. "We fronted up when we could have turned up sulking," he remarked. "The first two days after Glasgow were horrible, but this was a proper performance."
It was also the fourth time Toulouse had played Wasps on English soil in this tournament. It is hard to believe, but they are still awaiting a victory. They know how to win in Biarritz, though, so the chances of a fifth title are very much intact.
Wasps: Tries Haughton, Lemi; Conversion Walder; Penalties Walder 3. Toulouse: Try Jauzion. Conversion Skrela. Penalties Skrela 3.
Wasps M Van Gisbergen (R Haughton, 23); T Varndell, B Jacobs (capt), D Waldouck, D Lemi; D Walder, J Simpson; T Payne (C Beech, 79), T Lindsay (J Ward, 71), S Taulafo (B Broster, 71), S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley, S Betsen, A Powell.
Toulouse C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, M Medard; D Skrela, J Doussain (N Vergallo, 55); D Human (J-B Poux, 42), W Servat (V Lacombe, 79), C Johnston (Y Montes, 75), Y Maestri (G Lamboley, 69), P Albacete, Y Nyanga (C Heymans, 50), T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles (S Sowerby, 50).
Referee A Rolland (Ireland).