If Gloucester came here yesterday in search of the path to next season's Heineken Cup pool stage, Wasps were seeking something a little more fundamental to their collective wellbeing: namely, the right to continue describing themselves a top-flight club. In so far as it is possible to put a price on such a thing, we are talking a figure with plenty of noughts attached to it – all of which leaves Elliot Daly, one of the bright young things on English rugby's midfield scene, in serious dangerous of being branded the "million-pound man".
The Londoners are not home and dry quite yet, but by nailing a 79th-minute penalty from halfway – from a position within millimetres of the centre spot, to be precise – the 19-year-old centre, who is still listed in official Wasps publications as an academy member, sent them eight points clear of Newcastle, the other Premiership poodles in the relegation dogfight, with three games to play. As one of those fixtures is a meeting with the Tynesiders on home soil, the former European champions can smell safety, even if they cannot touch it.
Daly is "not noticeably short of confidence", according to the Wasps director of rugby, David Young, and sure enough the lad sent the ball flying from the tee like a bullet from a gun.
"Elliot wants to be a No 1 kicker, but when he does the job regularly he tends to aggravate a niggling problem he has with his knee," Young said. "If we let him do the job full time, his chances of making it through a game would be slim. He needs two days off training as it is." Might the niggle have something to do with the fact that he gives the ball such a fearful smack? "You wouldn't want a kick up the arse from him, that's for sure," the boss said, after due consideration.
Wasps won their late penalty with some generous help from Gloucester who, having surged back into the contest with blinding tries from Charlie Sharples and Akapusi Qera, demonstrated once again that when it comes to closing out a match, they are about as much use as the proverbial chocolate fireguard. Young's opposite number, Bryan Redpath, was profoundly exasperated by his team's decision-making, some of which made the coalition government's recent calls seem positively sound.
"Up by a point with a minute 54 left on the clock and we lose possession at the ruck," Redpath muttered, shaking his head in disbelief. "In that situation, it doesn't matter what number you have on your back: you get in there and protect the ball. We're just not smart, are we? We've had numerous chances to learn our lessons this season, but it's not happening. To see us go in front and then try to play out of our 22 against a side fighting for their lives... Why would we think we're good enough to do that?"
Redpath was equally unimpressed by his team's failure to find their way out of the starting blocks. They conceded a penalty from a botched kick-off – Jim Hamilton, the biggest man on the field by a distance and therefore not an obvious candidate to do anything incognito, found himself on the wrong end of the whistle at the first ruck – and when Nic Berry made a nonsense of the Gloucester defence following an early engagement at a scrum, Wasps were 10 points up inside five minutes. A fine try from Scott Lawson in the left corner following exhilarating approach work from James Simpson-Daniel, Jonny May, Sharples and Qera ensured the West Countrymen were in close touch at the interval, but they were as profligate at the start of the second half as they had been 40 minutes previously, again shipping 10 points in next to no time.
Wasps were less than imaginative in approach: generally speaking, they kicked the ball in the air, in the hope that Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones and Billy Vunipola, a back-row not so much young as pre-pubescent, would make sufficient nuisances of themselves to cramp Gloucester's counter-attacking style. This happened pretty much as planned, and the Londoners also found some joy at the set piece, although things changed a little when the aggressive Shaun Knight, a home-grown prop of rich potential, replaced Rupert Harden for Gloucester at the sharp end.
But for all their lack of application in the game-management disciplines, the visitors always had an air of danger about them – especially when their captain, Luke Narraway, decided enough was enough and started asking some questions in open field. It was Narraway's burst down the right, aided and abetted by a crafty little flick-pass from Nick Runciman, that allowed Sharples to close the gap to five points with half an hour left on the clock, and when Nicky Robinson kicked loosely to the ultra-rapid May, another glistening gem of a try was unearthed. May covered acres of ground in the bat of an eyelid, Henry Trinder offered the necessary support and Qera disappeared under the sticks.
Adams Park, never the noisiest of rugby venues, was eerily quiet: Wasps were 24-23 to the bad and had the R-word ringing in their ears. If ever a once-great club needed something special to halt their slide towards the abyss, the Londoners did at that moment. Enter Daly, with his dodgy knee.
As a relieved Young said afterwards: "He can have three days off training this week. Or maybe four."
Wasps: Tries Berry, Southwell; Conversions Robinson 2; Penalties Robinson 3, Daly. Gloucester: Tries Lawson, Sharples, Qera; Conversions Burns 3; Penalty Burns.
Wasps: H Southwell (capt); R Haughton, E Daly, R Davis, T Prydie; N Robinson, N Berry (C Davies, 72); T Payne (S Taulafo, 59), T Lindsay (V Korshunov, 59), B Broster, J Cannon (R Filipo, 66), R Birkett, J Launchbury, S Jones, V Vunipola.
Gloucester: J May; C Sharples, H Trinder (M Tindall, 66), T Molenaar ( T Taylor, 79), J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, N Runciman (D Robson, 66); D Murphy (Y Thomas, 70), S Lawson (D Dawiduik, 72), R Harden (S Knight, 48), T Savage, J Hamilton (A Brown, 57), P Buxton, A Qera (A Strokosch, 66), L Narraway (capt).
Referee: A Small (London; JP Doyle, London, 60.)