Drinking at the second chance saloon, Wasps made the most of the happy hour last night in the so-called Premiership play-off. Second in the table, they defeated Northampton, who had finished third, to earn the right to play Gloucester in the final at Twickenham in two weeks time.
They edged out the Saints by a goal, three penalties and a drop goal to a goal and a penalty, but if they are to deny the club who finished top of the Premiership by some distance the title of champions, they will have to raise their game.
Northampton, already beaten by Gloucester in the Powergen Cup final at Twickenham, defended heroically, but without four key players they never had enough in their locker seriously to threaten a Wasps side who were merely relieved to receive another pay day.
The combination of May and an evening kick off seemed to disorientate the players, who for most of a flat first half, looked as if they should have been somewhere else. Either that, or the prospect of reaching a Twickenham final made them apprehensive.
Wasps had the chance to take the lead in the second minute, when Ben Cohen tackled Rob Howley from a blatantly offside position, but Kenny Logan narrowly failed with the long-range penalty attempt. However, after Lawrence Dallaglio had gone close from a scrum Alex King landed a simple penalty.
King's opposite number, Paul Grayson, seemed to be suffering the ill-effects of a long-standing foot injury, and the stand-off limped off midway through the half, to be replaced by James Brooks. Wasps dominated possession, but they found it extremely hard to breach the Saints' line. When Howley chased a kick deep in the Northampton half he was beaten to the ball by Andrew Blowers. Play was frequently punctuated by handling errors, but Northampton had the encouragement of drawing level after 24 minutes, when they won a penalty close to Wasps' 10-metre line and Bruce Reihana, kicking in Grayson's absence, made no mistake.
John Leslie then had a kick charged down close to halfway, Wasps hacked on and swarmed towards the Northampton line, where Ian Vass pulled off a tremendous save to deny the home side what appeared a certain try. Dallaglio, after being fed by Howley, was again held up on the line and then spilled possession, enabling Saints to clear the danger.
In the final few minutes of the half Wasps received a tremendous boost with a 10-point burst. First King kicked his second penalty after Oriol Ripol had not released the ball in the tackle, and a minute later Wasps capitalised on a dreadful pass from Brooks, intended for Blowers. Instead the loose ball was kicked on by King to elude Cohen's despairing lunge, and Fraser Waters won the race for the touchdown, beating Nick Beal in the process. King's conversion gave Wasps a lead of 13-3 at half time, a positive bonus in the light of what had gone before.
Northampton struck immediately after the break to get back into the match. Howley had a kick charged down by Reihana, who linked with Leslie and the centre brought Cohen into play. The left wing, with a clever change of pace to beat Josh Lewsey on the outside, just squeezed in at the corner. Reihana's touchline conversion cut the deficit to three points.
The second half was barely more fluid than the first, though, and Wasps were indebted to the boot of King. The stand-off, who has just turned down a move to Pau, kicked a third penalty when Mattie Stewart obstructed Howley from an offside position and picked up a yellow card into the bargain. King added a drop goal to restore Wasps' lead to nine points, and that was good enough.
Chris Wright, the chairman and head honcho at Wasps, said the club had made a successful move from Loftus Road to High Wycombe, but emphasised the need to reduce "significant losses.'' Good news, then, was the announcement that Greene King, the brewers of Abbot Ale, are sponsoring Wasps next season. The company pointed out that the club, with players called Green, King and Abbott, were a natural choice.
Pens: King 3
Half-time: 13-3 Attendance: 7,398
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, F Waters, S Abbott, K Logan (J Rudd, 63); A King, R Howley; C Dowd, T Leota (P Greening, 63), W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley, L Dallaglio (capt), P Volley.
Northampton: N Beal; O Ripol, B Reihana, J Leslie (capt, M Tucker, 61), B Cohen; P Grayson (J Brooks, 21), I Vass; M Stewart, S Thompson, R Morris (C Budgen, 61), M Lord, R Hunter (S Williams, 40), M Connors, A Blowers (G Seely, 73), D Fox.
Referee: C White (Somerset).