Ashley Johnson, Wasps’ part-time hooker and sometime Springbok – three caps in 2011 before his transfer from the Free State to West London – was a full-time nuisance to Newcastle in his more customary back-row berth, as the Falcons fell to a 20th Premiership loss on the trot.
Johnson carried hard into Newcastle’s midfield channels, which was to be expected by anyone who saw him laying waste to Northampton here a fortnight ago. He cleared up a messy throw to the tail of a line-out, and popped up twice in the ensuing movement for James Gaskell’s try in the 29th minute; and the powerful South African hurtled free from another line-out 14 minutes into the second half to make the second try of the match for Tom Varndell on Wasps’ left wing.
Newcastle’s director of rugby Dean Richards was upset that Johnson’s pass to Varndell was “two yards forward” and criticised the referee for turning a deaf ear to the players and touchline staff who wanted the score referred to the television match official.
Given that this action came after Newcastle’s replacement loosehead prop Alex Rogers had forfeited a try by losing the ball forward in Joe Simpson’s goalline tackle, it amounted to a 14-point swing in Wasps’ favour, and left them 30-11 up.
“Ashley has been outstanding for us all season,” said David Young, Richards’s Wasps counterpart. “He’s a real talisman, non-stop talking and non-stop encouragement, and he comes up with some big plays. Whether they’re big tackles or big carries he’s always a big player for us.”
Another important figure, England lock Joe Launchbury, was given a rest by Wasps. After two narrow defeats by Saracens and Harlequins this season in addition to the two home wins, they are looking up the league table. Newcastle by contrast have just entered a 12th month of winless pain in the Premiership, and as premature as it may appear, their meeting with London Welsh in Oxford on Saturday week has the look already of the first leg of a relegation play-off. They each have one point and no wins, but Richards bravely suggested a Newcastle upturn was possible, harking back to the 2006-7 season when his Harlequins team lost the first five matches but finished seventh. “Our objective last season was to stay up and we did it,” Richards said. “This season we have lost four matches but we’re scoring tries, which makes me confident. Where we’re at a loss is why there were so many individual errors.”
The pressure exerted by Wasps was one reason. Their scrum made life difficult for Kieran Brookes, the tighthead prop out of position here after being capped twice as an England tourist in the summer, and his replacement Rogers. Newcastle were ahead with a penalty by Juan Pablo Socino, but quickly undone by a brilliant one-handed pass from Elliot Daly to feed Varndell. With a conversion by Goode and a penalty apiece by Socino and Goode, Wasps led 10-6. By half-time it was 17-11 after Gaskell’s try converted by Goode and one for Newcastle when their scrum-half Ruki Tipuna finished a cross-field raid from Dom Barrow’s line-out catch.
Newcastle were plucky with their pick and goes, but anything more lavish tends to unravel. Goode kicked two more penalties for Wasps, then Varndell tiptoed to the corner to take his Premiership career total to 79 tries, seven behind the all-time record holder Mark Cueto. With the result assured, the last 10 minutes were notable for the flourish and frustration of Christian Wade. The England hopeful, recently back from 10 months’ injured, ripped possession from Sinoti Sinoti to make a 50-metre run-in for Rob Miller, who also converted. But Wade’s next act was to knock down a pass near his own corner flag at the cost of a yellow card and a penalty try. Young concurred with the former, was surprised at the latter – and overall rated Wasps’ performance as “not vintage by a long way, but it got the job done”.