Denney allows his rare quality to do the talking

It may or may not have been the last showpiece, the final final, in the 28-year history of knock-out rugby in England; the future of the Tetley's Bitter Cup should be settled one way or the other by the end of the month, always assuming the committee-room comedians concentrate on reaching an agreement rather than reaching for the gin bottle. This much is certain, though: Keith Barwell, the Northampton millionaire with an opinion for every pound in his bank account, will never again shout the odds on the eve of a big match.

Probably the most passionate of all the major Premiership club owners, Barwell is also the loudest. By comparison, Brian Clough is self-effacing, Geoff Boycott diffident and Prince Naseem Hamed positively sheepish. "Keith Barking", as he is fondly nicknamed at Franklin's Gardens, could go 15 rounds with Germaine Greer and still talk the talk at the end. However, not even Barwell could expect to ridicule Wasps, the reigning champions, a mere 48 hours before the off and get away with it.

Maybe he saw no danger in dismissing the Londoners as "iffy" and predicting a Northampton victory by as many as 30 points, on the basis that the rugby audience on satellite television is broadcasting's equivalent of a home gate at Orrell. Sadly for Barwell, the tiny handful of viewers included the entire Wasps team. "I knew when the players walked in on Friday morning that something had fired them up," grinned Nigel Melville, the Wasps coach, after Saturday's victory. "When they told me about Keith's comments, I thought: 'Fine, I don't need to say any more.' I'd like to thank him. He's one hell of a motivator."

Unsurprisingly, Pat Lam was less amused by Barwell's unscheduled role in the Wasps build-up. "I didn't see the programme because my wife won't allow me to buy a satellite dish, but I found out about it soon enough because the Wasps players kept referring to it in the rucks and mauls," said the battle-weary Northampton captain. Did he consider it a useful contribution on his employer's part? "I wouldn't like to comment," he replied, pointedly.

In tight contests - and Saturday's final, played out before an unexpectedly large audience of around 60,000, was as taut as they come - Wasps can indeed be a little on the flakey side, and when, with 14 minutes left, they found themselves 23-19 down to a tired and unimaginative side playing almost entirely from memory, they looked vulnerable in the extreme. It was then that Lawrence Dallaglio asked his players whether they could stomach the thought of Barwell being proved right. Mark Denney, for one, decided he could not.

The mop-haired centre from Epping Forest had already created a first-half try for Josh Lewsey with a powerful incursion into the Northampton 22, but his second foray on 72 minutes was more decisive still. Running on to a pop-up pass from Martyn Wood, Denney broke clean through Richard Metcalfe and Mattie Stewart, slipped away from the covering Budge Pountney and lured Tim Rodber and Allan Bateman into a double tackle before setting up the quick ruck from which Dallaglio freed Kenny Logan into the left corner. In three seconds flat, he had removed approximately 68st of prime Midlands muscle from the defensive equation and neutralised three of the Saints most destructive tacklers. It was little wonder that Logan crossed unopposed.

Melville's shrewd decision to shift Denney to outside centre paid further dividends in injury time when the England A cap hoovered up some loose Northampton ruck ball and sped into the left corner for the wrap-up score.

It was a very decent day's work, and Clive Woodward might usefully take the evidence into account. England may have wings coming out of their ears and more locks than they know what to do with, but outside centres are rarer than radium. Denney to South Africa this summer? The red rose army could do far worse.

"People have tended to pigeonhole Mark as an inside centre, but I've seen things in him recently that convinces me he can play both 12 and 13," said Melville, perhaps the most creative selector in the English Premiership. "He was opposite Bateman out there, and Bateman is no slouch. Power and strength are important assets for an inside centre, but they are more damaging again in the outside position, especially if a player has pace as well. Mark possesses all those qualities." In other words: get on the phone now, Clive, while the force is with him.

During the last quarter-hour of the match, Wasps looked the equal of any side in Britain. Up front, Simon Shaw dominated the contest for possession with his supreme footballing skills while Dallaglio hurt Northampton time and again with his route-one charges. Out wide, Lewsey scampered and scuttled to huge effect from deep. The full-back is in the early stages of officer training at Sandhurst - "When I'm standing to attention for the biggest kit check in history at 5.30 tomorrow morning, the rest of the team will only just be thinking about going to bed," he grimaced - but, thankfully, his rugby appetite remains as sharp as his running lines. Lewsey is a one-off, a true original, and the sport needs him on board.

As for Northampton... suffice to say that rugby's Grim Reaper has taken up residence in the dressing-room. Physically, they have been in pieces for almost a month: at one point on Saturday Lam left the field because he had lost all feeling in his recently dislocated shoulder, and although he returned five minutes later, he failed to go the distance. Now they are in tatters emotionally, too. Victory would have solved so many problems. Defeat multiplied those problems by the power of 10.

"Our game is all about putting pace on the ball," said their director of rugby, John Steele. "Our shape was the same as ever out there, but we didn't have the pace. You can draw your own conclusions as to why we don't have the pace at this stage of the season." If it was not quite an admission of defeat on all fronts, it was no declaration of bullish intent either. There are three games left to the Saints - two thankless Premiership away-days at Saracens and Newcastle, followed by a Heineken Cup final against a well-rested Munster - and as things stands, European qualification for next season is more distant than the moon.

Northampton: Try Pountney; Penalties Grayson 6. Wasps: Tries Lewsey, Leota, Logan, Denney; Conversion Logan; Penalties King 3.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Bateman, M Allen, B Cohen; P Grayson, M Dawson; G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart (M Scelzo, 73), A Newman (J Phillips, 60), R Metcalfe, T Rodber, A Pountney, P Lam (capt, D Mackinnon, 65).

Wasps: J Lewsey; S Roiser, M Denney, R Henderson, K Logan; A King, M Wood; D Molloy, T Leota, W Green, A Reed (M Weedon, 65), S Shaw, J Worsley, P Volley, L Dallaglio (capt).

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).

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