Wasps cling on to win raw and bloody battle

Wasps 19 Leinster 12
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The Independent Online

Twickenham was not exactly awash with the milk of human kindness as the so-called "Battle of the Capitals" unfolded on Saturday night. As for the idea of hands across the water – forget it. Try hands around the throats, instead. This was rugby in the raw: unsanitised, unforgiving and teetering on the uncontrollable.

Two international forwards of long standing – Serge Betsen and Malcolm O'Kelly – may soon be hearing more about the misdemeanours that put them in the cooler towards the end of a first half so ferocious it took 53 minutes to complete, and by the time the citing officer completes his investigations, half a dozen others could have some explaining to do.

Yet, even a game as brick-hard as this fell victim to the great blight of the modern rugby age: uncontested scrums. If it was mildly amusing that Wasps, so often the perceived villains in this most contentious of areas, were the ones to be seriously disadvantaged by the set-piece armistice declared five minutes before the interval, the fact 33,000 members of the paying public were short-changed for the entire second half was not funny at all. It cannot go on. Even the International Rugby Board, brilliant at introducing the sport to far-flung parts of Asia but not so good at recognising the bleedin' obvious, must surely know this by now.

The fact that the Irish province arrived with two props they knew to be struggling for fitness made things worse. The Springbok front-rower C J Van der Linde went into the game with a foot injury and was back out of it again by the end of the first quarter, while Stan Wright's fragile shoulder gave way just before the break.

"We'd bracketed both of them with other players all week because we knew there were doubts," admitted Michael Cheika, the Leinster coach. "But look, this is something for the administrators to sort out. I'm just playing by the rules."

Ian McGeechan, the Wasps director of rugby, was hardly in the best position to complain, so he didn't. "Ultimately, it's a safety issue," he said. "Maybe a move to eight replacements rather than seven, with a whole front row on the bench, is worthy of investigation." An investigation would indeed be welcome and the sooner it happens, the better. The scrum is meant to be one of rugby's core disciplines, not something a struggling team can avoid when the going gets tough. Equally, injuries should be a hindrance, not a blessing.

While the whole game was being played, rather than selected bits of it, Wasps were the superior side. They set about the Leinster forwards with a passion and might have established a winning lead by the break had Danny Cipriani not fluffed a couple of early shots at the sticks. As it was, they held only a four-point advantage at the turn-around, courtesy of Betsen's close-range finish following a blinding break by Josh Lewsey, who found Paul Sackey with a sublime pass off his left hand while travelling at full pelt. Too often in the past, Lewsey had run brilliantly but not managed a pass of any description. Perhaps everyone should stop playing for England.

Before the half was out, three players had been shown a yellow card. If Betsen's obstruction-cum-trip on Felipe Contepomi did not look great, the contact between O'Kelly's boot and Phil Vickery's head looked immeasurably worse. By comparison, Rob Kearney's touch-line spat with Sackey and sundry other Wasps was an act of innocence. "Quite how Rob gets binned for being taken out over the side-line and then being punched in the head, I'm not sure," Cheika complained.

Leinster, revelling in the scrumlessness, were far more threatening in the second half and might even have won had they capitalised on Cian Healy's rumble into the Wasps 22 in the last 10 minutes. But they took nothing from the longest attack of the game – Contepomi pushed a simple penalty wide of the right post – and with the magnificent Vickery to the fore, it was the home side who registered the final blow with a left-sided goal from David Walder.

Should they have gone for the try instead, with a view to denying Leinster the bonus point that may yet decide the pool? Vickery, who made the call, said something about "winning the game first and foremost", but over a quiet pint on Saturday night, he might have had second thoughts.

Scorers: Wasps: Try Betsen; Conversion Cipriani; Penalties Cipriani 3, Walder. Leinster: Penalties Contepomi 4.

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey, D Waldouck (T Voyce, 66), R Flutey, J Lewsey; D Cipriani (D Walder, 73), E Reddan (J Simpson, 83); T Payne (D Leo, 65), R Webber (J Ward, 36-40), P Vickery (capt), G Skivington, R Birkett, J Worsley, S Betsen, J Haskell.

Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan (G D'Arcy, 60), B O'Driscoll (D'Arcy, 51-60), F Contepomi, L Fitzgerald; I Nacewa (G Dempsey, 83), C Whitaker; C J Van der Linde (C Healey, 21), B Jackman (J Fogarty, 76), S Wright (S O'Brien, 40), L Cullen (capt, T Hogan, 21), M O'Kelly, R Elsom, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

Referee: C Berdos (France).