For his next trick, Dean Ryan will attempt a feat bordering on the impossible. Having successfully incorporated a bewilderingly gifted group of innocents - Anthony Allen, Jack Forster and the exceptional Ryan Lamb are still in their teens, Olly Morgan only a few weeks out of them - into a Gloucester team traditionally populated by cauliflower-faced senior citizens with records as long as an orang-utan's arm, the coach is now making it his business to douse the flames of expectation ripping through English rugby like a bush fire. This is some challenge. The Cherry and Whites may have lost the weekend battle at Kingsholm, but their supporters will take a lot of convincing that the war is not close to being won.
"These are not international-standard players," Ryan insisted on Saturday. "They may never be international-standard players. There is certainly some talent at this club, but just because people are talented it doesn't necessarily follow that they'll turn out to be great. A lot of people start out talented, then disappear up their own backsides. These players will be great if they listen."
So there. The day the Big Bad Wolf throws cheap compliments around, he'll be in a box.
Much of the post-match attention was centred on Lamb, and with good reason. The 19-year-old outside-half did not manage Gloucester's game particularly well in the first half, despite a Rolls-Royce service from his line-out jumpers, Jonathan Pendlebury and Alex Brown. Yet once Haydn Thomas replaced the exasperating Peter Richards at scrum-half, Lamb ran so many rings around the Wasps midfield they must have wondered whether they had landed on Saturn. There was a grubber kick for Allen's second try, a dummying solo effort from distance to put the underdogs ahead and a visionary pass to James Simpson-Daniel close to his own line, from which the England back created a blinding score for James Bailey.
This last contribution will live long in the memory, for it was a glorious expression of the fearlessness of youth. Gloucester had absorbed wave upon wave of brutal assaults from a Wasps pack ogreish by comparison with the home side's forward unit. When the Londoners coughed up possession, Lamb might have cleared his lines with the boot. Instead, he cleared them with a combination of brain and technique. Simpson-Daniel's playful circumnavigation of a thoroughly discombobulated Lawrence Dallaglio was the icing on the cake.
Yet Ryan withdrew Lamb from the fray when push really came to shove, replacing him with Ludovic Mercier. "We were points up, and yes, we'd done some brilliant things in that third quarter," the coach said. "But there was still plenty of time for Wasps to do what they do best, which is build pressure in the late stages of a game. We needed to play in the right areas, and we weren't finding them. Sometimes, you have to play smart and play sensible."
A failure of nerve on Ryan's part, or a necessary clipping of the wings in the face of the kind of response common to champion teams - especially three-time champion teams, like Wasps? Ryan slept easy in his bed on Saturday night, entirely comfortable with his decision. He had already seen his infants overdose on their own enthusiasm in the first half - "Our game management was appalling; we kept trying to score from our own 22 and gave Wasps high field position every time," he barked - and was fearful of something similar occurring at the last.
As it turned out, Mercier and his fellow old-stagers, Adam Eustace and Olivier Azam, could not prevent the Londoners claiming the one available place in the Premiership play-offs with a try by Joe Worsley two minutes from the end of normal time. Dallaglio, some captain when it comes to summoning the furies away from home, delivered his most productive spell of the season as the contest reached its climax, and with the likes of Worsley, Josh Lewsey and the hard-working hooker Joe Ward taking control, there was an air of inevitability about the conclusion.
"We need to sort ourselves before we go to Sale for the semi-final,"admitted Wasps' head coach, Shaun Edwards, who in conjunction with Ian McGeechan has precisely six days in which to concoct a strategy to derail the most aggressive and consistent side in the country.
"We've conceded nine tries to London Irish, now four to Gloucester. It isn't good. There again, everyone in the Premiership has been scoring heavily in recent weeks. If it goes on like this, we'll need 40,000-seater stadiums to cope with the demand. Who'd watch football when they can see rugby as it's being played at the moment?"
While Wasps are still involved in a tournament, they expect to win it. To put one over Sale at Edgeley Park, however, they will need a 100 per cent improvement at the line-out and a considerable degree of sharpening at the scrum. Gloucester took a couple against the head on Saturday and Forster, their generously-proportioned tight-head prop, lasted the full 80 and grew in stature (metaphorically rather than literally, thank the Lord) in the second half, which is no mean achievement for a mere 19-year-old.
The Londoners picked on him from first minute to last - a punch here, a patronising tap on the head there, a nasty word in his ear somewhere else - yet failed to subdue him. If they cannot deal with a young pup at scrum time, what price their chances of dominating the fighting dogs awaiting them up north?
Gloucester: Tries Allen 2, Lamb, Bailey; Conversions Lamb 3; Penalties Lamb 2. Wasps: Tries Worsley 2, Van Gisbergen, Sackey; Conversions Van Gisbergen 4; Penalties Van Gisbergen 3.
Gloucester: O Morgan; J Simpson-Daniel, M Tindall (J Bailey, 40), A Allen, M Foster; R Lamb (L Mercier, 72), P Richards (H Thomas, 40); P Collazo (T Sigley, 76), M Davies (O Azam, 72), J Forster, J Pendlebury (A Eustace, 72), A Brown, P Buxton (capt), A Hazell, J Forrester (L Narraway, 65).
Wasps: M van Gisbergen; P Sackey, J Lewsey, S Abbott (F Waters, 76), T Voyce; J Staunton, E Reddan (J Honeyben, 80); T Payne, J Ward, P Bracken (J Va'a, 76), S Shaw, R Birkett, D Leo, J Worsley, L Dallaglio (capt).
Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).
* SEMI-FINALS Sunday 14 May
Sale v Wasps
(Edgeley Park, 13.30 )
Leicester v London Irish (Welford Road, 16.00)
* FINAL Saturday 27 May
(Twickenham, 15.00)Reuse content