English rugby, and London rugby in particular, is not held in particularly high esteem down Cardiff way, and the scarlet-tinged fanatics of Llanelli are even less impressed with the way the game is played by those swanky sorts from the posh end of the M4. Just at the moment, though, Wasps are the toast of the Principality, having resuscitated Welsh interest in the Heineken Cup by beating Ulster in a ferocious contest at Loftus Road.
Wasps, long out of the running for the place in the knock-out stage, strained every sinew and shed every last drop of sweat to claim their second victory of the European campaign and blow the qualification race wide open. The mathematics surrounding this weekend's final round of pool matches would be enough to turn Archimedes to drink, but the most likely scenario has Cardiff, Llanelli and Ulster chasing a single quarter-final slot. Should Munster win in Castres on Saturday, two of the three might make it.
Quite where this Wasps performance came from is anybody's guess. Short of international authority in the long-term absence of Lawrence Dallaglio – they are deep in the Premiership relegation mire having lost eight of their 12 league games – they took the field yesterday without Joe Worsley, Phil Greening, Josh Lewsey, Paul Sampson and Kenny Logan. "It was a difficult game to prepare for, because there was nothing in it for us apart from recovering some of the self-respect we'd lost earlier in the competition," said Nigel Melville, their director of rugby. "But we do care about our standards, and we showed how much we care out there. We've taken a huge step forward."
More significantly, perhaps, Wasps demonstrated their ability to squeeze out a result while taking huge steps backwards. Three full scores ahead at 33-12 shortly after the interval, the Londoners suddenly found themselves on the sticky end of an Ulster surge that might, on another day, have reduced them to dust. Tries from Andy Ward and the excellent Ryan Constable, a broken-field runner of considerable quality, put the visitors in touch – they rattled along at a point a minute for a full quarter of the game – and by the time the clock ticked into injury time, Wasps were tackling from memory.
Ulster might have prevailed but for an injury suffered by David Humphreys, their international stand-off, after 16 minutes. Humphreys is hardly the biggest midfield back in the game, and when Trevor Leota gathered a loose ball and set sail towards the stand-off's ribcage, there was only ever going to be one winner. Sure enough, the Ulsterman was left in a heap on his own 22, and to make matters worse, Mark Denney capitalised on the mayhem by cutting inside the cover for an opening try at the posts.
Humphreys stayed on for the rest of the half, but he was limping horribly and was unable to kick for goal. Paddy Wallace, a bright footballer but no William Tell, missed two penalties before the break – he finished with five successes from nine attempts, compared to Alex King's eight from nine – and that fragility cost Ulster dear. Wallace also gifted Fraser Waters an interception try shortly after the restart. Under such depressing circumstances, he did well to threaten as much as he did in the final 20 minutes.
Leota wreaked his usual havoc: quite how the Italian officials, led by Giovanni Morandin, missed his 15-rounder with Tony McWhirter at a fierce second-half ruck will forever remain a mystery. But the Samoan was an important figure for positive reasons, too. His line-out throwing has improved out of all recognition, as has his scrummaging. Wasps, fielding two inexperienced forwards in their back row, went toe-to-toe with the aggressive Ulster pack and were still standing at the end.
Ward's kick-ahead try just before the hour mark, was hotly disputed by Wasps, who felt Russell Nelson had tackled Shane Roiser in the air. There was no disputing Constable's score six minutes later, though, and the Australian might have spared Ulster a nervous few days had he started yesterday's game. As it is, the 1999 champions have made life very difficult for themselves.
Wasps: Tries Denney, Roiser, Waters; Conversions King 3; Penalties King 5. Ulster: Tries Ward, Constable; Conversions Wallace 2; Penalties Wallace 3, Humphreys 2; Drop goal: Wallace.
Wasps: M Leek; S Roiser, F Waters, M Denney (capt), M Roberts; A King, M Wood; C Dowd, T Leota, W Green, S Shaw (S Green, 74), I Jones, J Beardshaw, P Volley, M Lock.
Ulster: P Wallace; S Coulter, A Larkin (R Constable, 49), J Bell, T Howe; D Humphreys (B Cunningham, 40), N Doak; J Fitzpatrick, P Shields (M Crick, 61), S Best, P Johns, G Longwell (J Davidson, 49), A McWhirter (N McMillan, 58), A Ward (capt), R Nelson.
Referee: G Morandin (It).Reuse content