Unless you happen to live in the general vicinity of Northampton - and it should be said that nine-tenths of the rugby population of England appear to reside within a five-minute walk of Franklin's Gardens - this was daylight robbery on a Brinks-Mat scale. Wasps were the fitter, faster side in yesterday's Heineken Cup quarter-final; they played the lion's share of the rugby, contributed most of the ideas and out-scored their hosts by two tries to one. On a normal day, they would have won by a street. But European Cup days are anything but normal.
When the nerve-ends began to fray in the final quarter, the Londoners slowly submerged in the quicksand of their own uncertainty. They lost their cool at the wrong moments, interfered with clean Northampton possession in the wrong areas of the field and ran their own ball up a variety of East Midlands culs-de-sac when they should have kicked long into the corners. As a result, Paul Grayson banged over three penalties in the last act of the drama. The third of them, two minutes into injury time, allowed the Saints to make off with the sporting bullion: a semi-final against Llanelli at the Madejski Stadium in Reading on 7 May. "It was," admitted John Steele, the Northampton coach, "a smash and grab job."
Nerves do things to rugby teams, even teams as accomplished as Wasps.
Lawrence Dallaglio and company were up against the eight-ball yesterday; Franklin's Gardens is always a bear-pit of a venue for the visiting side, and yesterday's atmosphere was a multi-decibel cacophony of passionate hostility. For an hour, they coped admirably - 22-16 ahead with 18 minutes left on the clock, they appeared to have it topped and tailed - but there was enough paranoia flying around late on to have kept an entire conference of psychiatrists in case studies. Such is the nature of the most challenging club tournament in the world game.
It may be that Wasps will run a collective eye over the match video today and decide that Clayton Thomas, the Welsh referee, did them wrong. Thomas certainly has his peculiarities, as the Parisians of Stade FranÃ§ais discovered to their cost at Leicester in the early stages of the competition, but he was equally bad for both sides yesterday. There was considerable confusion surrounding the final penalty award that allowed Grayson to pot his seventh goal from seventh attempts - the most likely explanation was that Thomas had objected to Will Green's marginally late tackle on Dom Malone as the scrum-half kicked dangerously ahead - but the crucial points still took an awful lot of kicking. "You can say what you like about Paul, but he comes through when the pressure is on," Steele said.
For all their little foibles and fragilities, Northampton possessed one precious commodity: pure, undiluted cool. At the moment, they are the Humphrey Bogarts of English rugby. Pat Lam, their wonderful captain, spent his entire afternoon in the eye of the storm, yet remained his calm, phlegmatic self throughout. Federico Mendez kept his explosive temper in check, Garry Pagel walked on eggshells without breaking a single one - not bad for a 19st Springbok - and Tim Rodber won some vital line-out ball when the heat was at its most intense. "We didn't do the simple things at all well, but we kept our nerve in a situation where we might have buckled in days gone by," Steele asserted.
Northampton enjoyed marginally the better of the early rough and tumble, Grayson kicking an early penalty and then converting Malone's 22nd-minute try, which came as a direct result of Andy Reed being in the sin-bin for killing the ball. The under-manned Wasps pack could not prevent Pagel and his heavy hitters wheeling a close-range set-piece and putting their scrum-half in a short-side hole the width of the M1. After that, though, Wasps began to call the shots.
Alex King, not the most bankable of goal-kickers but one hell of a play-making stand-off, took advantage of some brave work from Paul Volley a couple of minutes before the break to give Wasps an attacking platform in the Northampton 22, and when the Saints' midfield stood off Mark Denney as the Londoners worked the ball right, Dallaglio materialised on his centre's shoulder to finish the move near the posts. Grayson's accuracy kept the home side at the races, but when the magnificently athletic Joe Worsley skinned three tacklers in a 40-metre gallop to the line on 50 minutes, the visitors were in control.
King extended the lead to six points with a calm, collected penalty four minutes later, but earlier lapses - not least his fluffed conversion of Dallaglio's try, which was charged down by Ben Cohen - ensured that his side did not receive full value for their superiority. Grayson was in nothing like so generous a mood.
Northampton: Try Malone; Conversion Grayson; Penalties Grayson 6. Wasps: Tries Dallaglio, Worsley; Penalties: King 4.
Northampton: N Beal; J Sleightholme, A Bateman (A Northey, 27), M Allen, B Cohen; P Grayson, D Malone; G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart, R Metcalfe (J Phillips, 54), T Rodber, D Mackinnon (S Holmes, 62), A Pountney, P Lam (capt).
Wasps: J Lewsey; S Roiser, F Waters, M Denney, K Logan; A King, M Wood; D Molloy, T Leota, W Green, A Reed, S Shaw (M Weedon, 72), J Worsley, P Volley, L Dallaglio (capt).
Referee: C Thomas (Wales).
CUP SEMI-FINAL DRAW
Stade Toulouse v Munster (Bordeaux, Saturday 6 May, 2.45) Northampton v Llanelli (Madejski Stadium, Reading, Sunday, 7 May, 3.0)
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