Heaven knows, Wasps have lost Premiership matches before now – during their heyday in the middle years of this decade, they would habitually finish second to all and sundry in the first half of a campaign before laying waste to their rivals after Christmas – and a single defeat at the hands of the form team in the competition is hardly a sign of impending catastrophe. But it is not often the former European champions are beaten at their own game, in the tackle and on the floor. Yesterday at the Madejski Stadium, they were not so much beaten at it, as thrashed.
London Irish are playing with enormous energy and enthusiasm. There is a fair bit of expertise about them too, much of it concentrated in the slight frame of Paul Hodgson, and if Martin Johnson, the England manager, decides to pick someone else at No 9 for the meeting with the Wallabies at Twickenham in November, that someone must be one hell of a player. Sailosi Tagicakibau, the long-levered Samoan wing, scored both of the Exiles' tries and won the man-of-the-match award, but it was Hodgson who stood at the heart of this victory. It is difficult to imagine anyone performing better at club level right now, in any position.
"He's a delight to have in the team," said Toby Booth, his head coach. "He's an old-fashioned scrum-half, if you like. He generates energy in the people around him, he tells them when they're not doing their jobs and has the capacity to play as a midfield general. Three of the England coaching team watched him today and he showed them what he can do in terms of his core skills and the clarity of thought he shows when he comes under pressure." Can Irish do without him? "Yes, I think we can," Booth replied. "We're planning for life without him because I'm fairly certain he'll be involved in the autumn internationals."
Hodgson's opposite number, the fleet-footed Joe Simpson, had attracted his fair share of publicity in the early weeks of the season, but he was put firmly in his place here. Partly, the chasm that opened up between the two half-backs was a consequence of what happened at the set-piece and the breakdown, both of which were bossed by the Exiles' pack in a ruthless way. "They beat us on the advantage line, which shouldn't happen," snarled Shaun Edwards, the Wasps coach, who tends to take these things personally.
But even when Wasps exerted a degree of control on proceedings – not something that occurred often, as the visitors freely admitted – Hodgson was indefatigable. His understanding with Ryan Lamb, the club's "marquee" summer signing at outside-half, showed clear signs of development – time and again, the two men switched position as a means of capitalising quickly on an attacking opportunity – and his tackling was something to behold.
One marginally late scragging of Simpson at the very end of the first half left the younger man in an almighty strop. Hodgson's reaction? A smirk as he disappeared down the tunnel, happy in the knowledge that he had scored another small, wholly immoral but significant victory.
Of the visitors, only Dominic Waldouck looked remotely likely to cause serious problems for Hodgson and company. So impressive at inside centre against Worcester seven days previously, the 22-year-old repeatedly found a way to split open the Irish midfield and make valuable yards downfield. If he over-egged things on occasion, it was largely because he was playing with precious little support.
"He's good, that's for sure," said Booth, admiringly. Waldouck's double-chargedown routine early in the second half led both to a penalty try and a spell in the cooler for Adam Thompstone, who dragged the centre down just short of the flag while ignoring the fact that the ball was somewhere else entirely. This brought Wasps to within a point, and with a one-man advantage assured for the next 10 minutes, they seemed well placed to turn the game.
Instead, Irish extended their lead, initially through a long-range drop goal from Peter Hewat and then through a comfortable pitching wedge of a penalty from Lamb following one of Waldouck's slight errors of judgement.
It was no more than the home side deserved, for they had been by far the superior outfit from the moment Tagicakibau finished a straightforward handling move two minutes into the game. Lamb's marksmanship was matched by that of Danny Cipriani, but the latter did little to excite the 14,000-strong crowd. Rather, he amused them with a penalty shot from halfway that bordered on the embarrassing. It bounced off the bar, but only after it had bounced off the floor first.
Tagicakibau's second try, an interception job following Ben Jacobs' non-starter of a pass tight to the touchline, gave the Exiles a whiff of a possible bonus point and they strived mightily for a third score that would have broken Wasps completely. But despite the heavyweight scrummaging of Faan Rautenbach, who did all sorts of horrible things to young Charlie Beech at the set-piece in the closing minutes, Wasps kept enough of their defensive discipline to avoid further damage.
Not that it will do them much good, for the coaches are of a mind to tear strips off them in training this week.
"We tend to see our games against London Irish as a benchmark," said Tony Hanks, the Wasps director of rugby. "They've given us a lot to think about here. They were right up for it, their physicality was good and they played with momentum. As for us, you didn't see a lot of composure. Still, it was an opportunity for us to see where we stand." Which is not where they thought they stood before kick-off.
Scorers: London Irish: Tries Tagicakibau (2); Penalties Lamb (4); Drop goals Lamb, Hewat. Wasps: Try Penalty try; Conversion Cipriani; Penalties Cipriani (3).
London Irish: P Hewat; A Thompstone, E Seveali'i (P Richards, 66), S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; R Lamb (C Malone, 61), P Hodgson (A Lalanne, 85); C Dermody (D Murphy, 75), D Paice (D Coetzee, 61), P Ion (F Rautenbach, 61), N Kennedy, R Casey (capt, A Perry, 61), D Danaher, S Armitage, C Hala'ufia (R Thorpe, 66).
Wasps: L Mitchell (D Walder, 61); P Sackey, B Jacobs, D Waldouck, T Varndell; D Cipriani, J Simpson; T Payne (C Beech, 71), R Webber, P Vickery (B Baker, 82), G Skivington, R Birkett (D Leo, 82), J Worsley (T Lindsay, 82), S Betsen (capt, D Ward-Smith, 61), J Hart.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content