There is a strange sense that North-ampton are a team in danger of breaking up, given the departures announced for the summer of Juandre Kruger, Neil Best and Soane Tonga'uiha. The treble-chasing side won the LV Cup last week, have a Heineken Cup quarter-final in a fortnight and yesterday entertained one of the half-dozen rivals vying to join them in the end-of-season Guinness Premiership play-offs. But a somewhat fortuitous win allied to the buzz around the club that Tonga'uiha has told Saracens he has changed his mind about going there, makes the future, short- and long-term, look a little more Saintly.
Wasps proved very capable of testing Saints' insecurity with an aggressive defence which shackled Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, Saints' pair of first-time starters for England in France the previous weekend. It forced Shane Geraghty at fly-half to kick to relieve the pressure, while Wasps forced four penalty shots at the posts in the first half-hour to the home side's two. Danny Cipriani – as out of favour with his national side as Foden and Ashton are flavour of the month – succeeded twice, Bruce Reihana for Northampton once, and Wasps led 6-3.
While Cipriani has spent the past year or so drifting into deciding a move to Australia is the best step in his career, his club captain, Tom Rees, has hardly passed a ball in anger. Rees reappeared yesterday after 11 months out and two shoulder operations. Many believe the openside flanker is the answer to all sorts of conundrums for club and country; not least as a possible national captain. A burly pair of shoulders and a Hair Bear mop of curly locks suggested Rees has been spending more hours in the weights room than at the barber's. Examples of his quality in Wasps' strong opening spell were a charge which included scrabbling along his knees and a biceps-bulging attempt to rip the ball off a Saint which ended unluckily in a penalty when Rees went off his feet.
Northampton, who missed the cuteness of their rested back-rower Phil Dowson, had not won their previous 20 home matches in a row without a keen sense of their own strengths. With a couple of minutes to go before half-time, they killed off a promising Wasps attack when a Reihana knock-on behind a scrum (Northampton had earned a put-in by splintering Wasps on theirs) gave Joe Worsley, Rees and Cipriani an opportunity to counter.
It looked good but in truth was too ponderous. Paul Sackey was eventually caught from behind with ease, and within seconds Saints were up the other end for a try. Ashton acted as scrum-half under the posts and Reihana's long, looped pass to the right allowed Roger Wilson to step inside Tom Varndell and score.
Geraghty was unable to convert wide out but in the initial stages of the second half Northampton, despite losing their captain, Dylan Hartley, to a wrist injury, looked more comfortable. Wasps came again, however, with Varndell seeing plenty of possession. It needed fine cover by Best to cut Sackey down on the right; then a blindside dart by Joe Simpson, the scrum-half injured since December, ended with a woefully forward pass from Varndell to Cipriani. When Dave Walder, on for Steve Kefu with Cipriani shifted to full-back, kicked a penalty for hands in the ruck after 63 minutes, Wasps led 9-8 and a valuable win beckoned.
Instead it was Myler – who afterwards emphatically rebuffed a report linking him with a move to Wasps – who clipped over a drop goal five minutes after he had replaced Geraghty, and added a penalty in the 73rd minute. Job done, but not by much.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty (S Myler, 64), L Dickson (A Dickens, 46-54); S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt; A Long, 40), B Mujati (E Murray, 47), C Lawes, J Kruger, M Easter, R Wilson, N Best.
London Wasps M van Gisbergen (B Jacobs, 40); P Sackey (D Lemi, 73), D Waldouck, S Kefu (D Walder, 58), T Varndell; D Cipriani, J Simpson; T Payne (B Broster, 64), R Webber, Z Taulafo, D Ward-Smith, G Skivington, J Worsley (S Betsen, 68), J Hart, T Rees (capt).
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).