Laidlaw passes test as champions put Exiles in their place

London Irish 19 Wasps 35
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The Independent Online

Guinness, who have a vested interest in London Irish as well as the Premiership, could be on to a good thing here although there is, of course, a long way to go. The Irish, who came within a reindeer's breath of relegation last season, had a rousing win over Saracens on Tuesday to move to third in the table, a place below Wasps. Wasps, the reigning champions, may have given up on the Heineken Cup but they are very much alive and kicking, not to mention punching, in the Premiership and this four-try, bonus-point victory was designed, among other things, to put the Irish in their place.

Midway through the second half things boiled up nicely and when the Irish threatened a comeback all hell broke loose. Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, may as well have wished Nick Kennedy a happy new cauliflower ear as he tore off his scrum cap in between exchanging blows. As Dallaglio was sent to the sin bin Mike Catt, his former England colleague and the Irish captain, went off injured after spending some time at the bottom of a ruck.

The hosts had been on a bit of a roll, winning their last five matches here, since losing by 30-26 to Wasps in the Powergen Cup at the beginning of October. Yesterday's setback, in front of a crowd in excess of 18,000, means they have lost their last eight against their London rivals. The Irish haven't swatted them since February 2002.

The Exiles displayed their hostile intent from the opening minute, when Adrian Flavin threw the Limerick-born Eoin Reddan into a Guinness hoarding. After Mark van Gisbergen and Ross Laidlaw had both kicked a couple of penalties, Wasps stunned the Irish with 14 points in four minutes.

Dallaglio, lurking in midfield, delivered a lovely overhead pass under intense pressure to Tom Voyce on the left wing and his inside pass to the flying Josh Lewsey was also perfectly timed. The defence exhausted, the England full-back, who was playing centre, went over for a cracker.

The Irish had the edge at the line-out, where Wasps missed Simon Shaw, but nowhere else. They had nothing of the flair and ingenuity of the Wasps threequarters, who nearly always looked dangerous. They would have been more dangerous still but for their colleagues turning over a fair bit of possession.

By contrast, the Irish could make no headway against one of the most aggressive defences in the league. This was a huge ask of Laidlaw, the ex-England Under-21 stand off. Making his Premiership debut, Laidlaw, whose nickname is Glamour, has a bright future. It wasn't just that he scored 14 points from goal kicks. Against one of the best back rows in the business, the 22-year-old acquitted himself well. He took some wrong options but overall warranted a mark of at least seven out of 10.

Lewsey's try arrived in the 25th minute and four minutes later Wasps delivered another. It didn't have the artistic merit of the first but it was hugely important. The Irish thought they had repelled a rolling maul when all of a sudden Joe Worsley broke free and was in the clear. The England flanker, who had played only 63 minutes of rugby since damaging knee ligaments in mid-October, looked in good nick.

Wasps had gone from 6-6 to 20-6. The Irish were not short of effort but they did not have the guile to turn possession into tries. As a result they were reduced to attempting improbable kicks at goal - witness Delon Armitage's outrageous effort from his own 10-metre line.

It fell short, as did the Irish assault despite a try by Bob Casey, who had only just come on early in the second half. Cue punch up. The trouble is that Wasps had already scored try No 3 through their French hooker Raphael Ibañez, who took a pass from George Skivington.

Skivington may have found life difficult in the line-out but he put himself about and looked like a back-row forward when he accepted Matt Dawson's pop-up pass near the end to score his side's fourth try and earn an extra point which could prove very important indeed.

Wasps cannot be written off. In the last three years they have allowed others to finish top of the Premiership, only to mug them in the play-offs. To do it once might be considered fortunate; to make a hat-trick of it is absolutely fabulous. As for the Irish, they are in urgent need of a wild rover.

London Irish: M Horak; D Armitage, P Franze, M Catt (capt; JM Leguizamon, 57) D Fea'unati (P Hodgson, 39); R Laidlaw, D Edwards (B Everitt, 70); M Collins (N Hatley, 45), A Flavin (D Coetzee, 40), F Rautenbach (D Wheatley, 72), R Strudwick (B Casey, 48), N Kennedy, R Thorpe, P Murphy, K Dawson.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; P Sackey (R Hoadley, 72), J Lewsey, S Abbott, T Voyce; J Staunton, E Reddan (M Dawson, 68); T Payne, R Ibañez (J Barrett, 52), J Va'a (A McKenzie, 48), J Hart (M Purdy, 66), G Skivington, J Worsley, L Dallaglio (capt) J O'Connor.

Referee: T Spreadbury (Somerset).