Howley pounces as Poitrenaud hands Wasps the greatest prize

Wasps 27 Toulouse 20
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Rugby is a young man's game, right? Wrong. Rugby at its most exalted level ­ at Heineken Cup final level, where the unique demands of the emotional hothouse rule out any possibility of a higher calling for the club player ­ is about maturity as much as lung power, about the long-learned disciplines of craftsmanship as much as the swaggering genius of the footballing artist.

Rugby is a young man's game, right? Wrong. Rugby at its most exalted level ­ at Heineken Cup final level, where the unique demands of the emotional hothouse rule out any possibility of a higher calling for the club player ­ is about maturity as much as lung power, about the long-learned disciplines of craftsmanship as much as the swaggering genius of the footballing artist.

So when the veteran Rob Howley and the electrifying Clément Poitrenaud were drawn together at the climax of yesterday's marvellous match at Twickenham, the older man knew he had an even-money chance of winning this clash of the generations. And win it he did, with a single flash of know-how that will be remembered as long as Wasps RFC remain a going concern.

Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, a cucumber-cool marksman with a 50-metre range, had drawn Toulouse level at 20-apiece with a perfectly struck three-iron of a penalty from near half-way with four minutes left to play.

The Frenchmen were cock-a-hoop, with good reason, for the prospect of extra time was deeply abhorrent to an exhausted Wasps side who had spent much of the previous 76 minutes tackling themselves into oblivion. The Londoners needed something. That something turned out to be their little Welsh scrum-half, broken bones and all.

Howley, a good distance into his 34th year and awaiting an operation to repair his fractured right wrist, understood the urgency of the situation. As the clock ticked down, he prodded a kick along the left touch-line with such supreme accuracy that the ball hugged the whitewash like a climber shuffling his way along one of Snowdon's more exposed ridges. Poitrenaud, an attacking full-back of extravagant gifts, showed unusual restraint for a 21-year-old; he waited and waited, praying that the ball would roll out of play and give his own team the security of their own throw at the line-out. It would do so at any moment, surely.

The longer he waited, the closer Howley came. He was busting a gut as much in hope as expectation, but he had certainly detected the faint whiff of an opportunity. Finally, the ball reached the goal-line, and as Poitrenaud collected it in leisurely fashion ­ anything rushed would have been beneath him ­ his opponent knocked the ball from his hands and grounded it in one instinctive, title-winning movement.

After Alan Lewis, the television match official, had given the incident a cursory once-over and ratified the score, Mark van Gisbergen added the extras to leave Toulouse on their knees.

Poitrenaud was instantly surrounded by sympathetic colleagues at the final whistle, but was inconsolable. Had he taken any of half a dozen chances to side-foot the ball into touch, or grounded it with greater alacrity once it reached the line, he would have saved himself the torments of hell and, in all probability, ensured his club would become the first to win a third Heineken title. But he did not do any of these things, and while he will learn his lesson well, it will take him a while to come to terms with his ignominy.

It is easy to argue that Toulouse deserved better. Out of form in the French championship since beating Biarritz in a tight Heineken semi-final a month ago, they re-summoned the furies so effectively that Wasps were obliterated at scrum and line-out and struggled to lay a hand on the ball. Yet the defending champions were as wasteful as they were accomplished. They made a serious error in fielding Yann Delaigue ahead of Elissalde ­ Delaigue lost his bearings almost as often as he missed his kicks ­ and if Frédéric Michalak orchestrated some moves of stunning complexity, he lacked the patience to hammer home the advantage.

Wasps, on the other hand, made the most of everything on offer. They created a beautiful opening strike at the end of the first quarter, the foundations of which were laid by Simon Shaw's ball-carrying and the precision of Alex King's scoring pass to Stuart Abbott, and while Toulouse replied when Delaigue grounded a richochet off Josh Lewsey following a ferocious raid by Yannick Jauzion and the spectacularly coiffured Finau Maka, the lightweight King somehow slipped away from Trevor Brennan shortly after the interval to manufacture a try out of nothing for the rapid Van Gisbergen, thereby giving the Londoners a nine-point advantage at 20-11.

More than this, Wasps tackled. The "black wall" of their defence was epitomised by Joe Worsley, who played something approaching the game of his life. Midway through the second half, the England flanker clawed down Maka with a finger on the bootlace, then picked himself up and smashed seven bells out of Christian Labit with a comprehensive full-frontal assault, all in the space of a few seconds. And when Lawrence Dallaglio, his captain, was sent to the sin-bin for some All Black-style "lazy running" during another furious Toulouse attack ­ never was a yellow card more richly deserved ­ Worsley touched even greater heights to guarantee that the Frenchmen remained pointless for the period of the sanction.

In the Wasps' dressing-room before kick-off, a large black-and-yellow banner was draped from the central heating pipes. "Defence wins matches," it said. It wins titles, too. Toulouse will forever wonder how they lost this final. Wasps know precisely how they won it.

Wasps: Tries Abbott, Van Gisbergen, Howley; Conversions Van Gisbergen 3; Penalties Van Gisbergen 2. Toulouse: Try Delaigue; Penalties: Elissalde 3, Delaigue 2.

Wasps 27
Tries Abbott, Van Gisbergen, Howley; Conversions Van Gisbergen 3; Penalties Van Gisbergen 2.

Toulouse 20
Try Delaigue; Penalties Delaigue 2, Elissalde 3.

Half-time: 13-11 Att: 73,057

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, F Waters, S Abbott, T Voyce; A King, R Howley; T Payne, T Leota, W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley, P Volley, L Dallaglio (capt).

Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; E Ntamack (V Clerc 66), C Desbrosse, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; Y Delaigue (J-B Elissalde, 52), F Michalak; P Collazo, W Servat (Y Bru, 58), J-B Poux, F Pelous (capt), T Brennan (D Gérard, 52), J Bouilhou, F Maka, C Labit (I Maka, 58).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)

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