The England coaching team may be Leicester to the core – four of the Big Five played for the Tigers while the other, the defence strategist Mike Ford, has a son on the Welford Road books – but in a ideal world, they would like the national side to play rugby the way it is played in another corner of the East Midlands. Northampton made short work, and an unholy mess, of Wasps yesterday, but that was not the half of it. They also destroyed the former champions' credibility as title contenders and left them wondering whether the professional game might be passing them by.
Wasps are seeking a way out of Adams Park, which does them no favours as a home stadium, and until they lay the foundations of a sustainable rugby business, the movers and shakers at the top end of the Premiership's rich list – Northampton and Leicester, Bath and Saracens – will continue to disappear over ranges of faraway hills.
"We'll find out what we're made of now, that's for sure," muttered Shaun Edwards, the head coach, in tones wholly suited to a late-night phone discussion with the Samaritans. "The feeling is a mixture of disappointment, frustration and embarrassment," added Tony Hanks, the director of rugby, "It's horrible, coming second like that. I can give you lots of words about how we're going to respond, but there's no point. The proof of it will come next weekend, when we go to Leeds."
As soon as news reached the Northampton camp that Simon Shaw, the Lions lock, had pulled out with calf trouble, they knew they had their hosts by the short and curlies. "Shaw has massive experience and he's a massive bloke, which counts when it comes to stopping the driving maul," said Hanks' opposite number, Jim Mallinder. "He was a big loss to them." So big, indeed, that the visitors claimed three of their five tries from... driving mauls.
But if Wasps' dependency culture is based around the continuing presence of a 37-year-old second-row forward who won his first caps for England in the amateur era, where the hell does that leave them now, a decade and a half into the professional one? This point was not lost on Edwards. "I don't think they'd have scored three tries from driving line-outs if Simon had been playing, but he wasn't playing," he remarked. "We need people to step in to his shoes."
Riki Flutey, another of Wasps current internationals, went the same way as Shaw midway through the second quarter of what amounted to a no-contest, hobbling off with the aid of two medics after mangling his right calf muscle. There was no immediate indication of his availability, or indeed the availability of his clubmate, for England's meeting with the All Blacks in 12 days' time, but given the fact that New Zealand are likely to be at least twice as good as Northampton, both players might prefer a recovery of the slow and steady variety. Ruthlessly direct and ferociously committed, the Saints had the game won at a ridiculously early stage.
They were 22-0 up after 32 minutes, Stephen Myler brushing David Walder aside with a hand-off to claim the opening try, Soane Tonga'uiha nailing the first of the wrestle-overs and Chris Ashton maximising a pinpoint punt by Myler down the right. Yet in reality, the debate had been concluded as early as the 13th minute, when the unsung Christian Day smashed his way upfield with such ease that the Wasps forwards were left with the clearest possible sense of their own impending doom.
Men against boys? Try men against new-born infants instead. Watched by John Wells, the England forwards coach, the two members of the Northampton pack in line for a shot at the All Blacks, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the lock Courtney Lawes, did themselves a power of good. When Hartley plays club rugby, there is an energy about him that the New Zealanders themselves would recognise, and when Lawes performs like this, giving full rein to his natural athleticism, there is just the hint of a possibility that the great claims made on his behalf this time last year might be justified at the World Cup this time next year.
"He was," said an admiring Mallinder, "absolutely awesome." This was overegging things just a little, for Wasps barely raised a hand in opposition as Lawes romped around the paddock, smashing the likes of Tom Rees and Joe Simpson to smithereens. But there is no doubting the man's potential. If he were French, he would most certainly be on Marc Lièvremont's radar. If he were a New Zealander, he would have raised one of Graham Henry's eyebrows long ago. And if he were an Australian... well, the Wallabies would kill for him.
It was entirely appropriate that he should end the game on the scoresheet, emulating the prolific Tonga'uiha by manhandling his way into the heart of a maul and touching down amid a landslide of spreadeagled Wasps bodies. He will find life a tad more challenging at Twickenham next time out, but at 21, he expects to be taught a lesson or two when mixing it with the best. Or perhaps he doesn't. Maybe he believes he can perform like this every week, irrespective of the opposition. And if he thinks like that, England would be crazy to tell him otherwise.
Wasps: Try Jacobs; Conversion Walder; Penalty Walder. Northampton: Tries Tonga'uiha 2, Myler, Ashton, Lawes; Conversions Myler 3; Penalties Myler 2.
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen (S Kefu, 68); T Varndell, D Waldouck, R Flutey (B Jacobs, 30), D Lemi; D Walder, J Simpson (N Berry, 59); T Payne (C Beech h-t, Taulafo ,79), R Webber (J Ward 61), S Taulafo (B Broster h-t), J Cannon (M Veale, h-t), D Ward-Smith, J Worsley, T Rees (capt, S Betsen, 68), A Powell.
Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey (J Ansbro, 71), P Diggin; S Myler (S Geraghty 66), L Dickson (R Powell, 63); S Tonga'uiha (R Dreyer 71), D Hartley (capt, B Sharman, 71), B Mujati (T Mercey, 63), C Lawes, C Day (M Sorenson, 61), P Dowson (C Clark, 61), T Wood, R Wilson.
Referee: G Garner (Warwickshire).Reuse content