Lam has shoulder to cry on

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The Independent Online

Something unbelievably exciting was advertised at half-time in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final yesterday. This turned out to be one James Millett, who had qualifed in the morning to kick a goal for £1m and earned £10,000 for his troubles. "This could change his life," announced John Inver-dale, the afternoon's compÿre. No such luck. The "something unbelievably exciting" proved to be almost as much of a letdown as the game itself, which was pretty mundane before the interval and only improved marginally after it because history demands that these two have close matches.

By beating Northampton31-23, though, Wasps claimed a place in the European Cup next season, which is worth a lot more than 10 grand. This has made their season and, on a try count of four to one in their favour, few would begrudge them the honour. Yet the Saints had a monopoly on the sympathies of the neutrals. They trooped up the steps to receive their losers' medals like children taking their teddies to bed after a long day, desperately aware the League has slipped from their grasp and another date at Twickenham, with Munster in the final of the European Cup, will decide whether the eternal bridesmaids will finally reach the altar.

A club founded on a former bear-baiting pit by a vicar, a father of nine children, and who have produced players of consistent international class without winning a single piece of silverware in 120 years of earnest endeavour, deserve one day of triumph. For a while, it looked like it might be yesterday, not through any technical merit on their own part, but mainly because of Wasps' obstinate refusal to deliver the knockout blow.

If this was meant to be the game's showpiece, the dazzling display of club rugby which would persuade the authorities to pencil the words "Cup Final" into their masterplans for 2002 and beyond, someone had forgotten to tell either of the two finalists. Of the array of talented runners, Ben Cohen, Kenny Logan and Shane Roiser, precious little was seen. The preliminaries had promised a cracker between two of the season's more inventive teams, and a niggly clash in the Premiership earlier in the week, when North-ampton put out a Second XV, suggested a healthy settling of scores. Instead, the game sped from error to error, drifting perilously close to farce on one occasion when Paul Volley, the last of three players sin-binned inside four minutes in the first half by referee Brian Campsall, arrived back on the field before the other two. Campsall belatedly realised the mistake and off went Volley again. Campsall, in truth, had a poor match, though both sides pushed his patience to the limit.

There is no joy in watching tired athletes play badly, in watching Nick Beal shell a straightforward catch or seeing Tim Rodber lifted high in the line-out only for Federico Mendez's throw to sail yards over his head. Rodber's look was pure resignation. He and the game had gone beyond despair. With five minutes remaining and Saints trailing by a single point, Paul Grayson attempted a penalty from inside his own half. A similarly prodigious kick had won Northampton the semi-final of the Euro- pean Cup a fortnight ago and there was a brief quiver of excitement around Twickenham. At last, a feat of genuine derring-do. But no, Grayson's kick fell invitingly into the lap of Trevor Leota, who promptly dropped the ball into the arms of the Saints' Don Mackinnon.

After their recent exertions in Europe, the Saints could at least offer a valid excuse for the poverty of fare. Wasps, the defending champions, just had an off-day. So we searched for any coherent rugby and, midway through the second half, resorted to cheering penalty kicks. The giving of them, that is, not the scoring, because the standard of goal-kicking varied from inadequate to woeful. Northampton looked to Pat Lam for inspiration, but found only a man with a big heart and one shoulder.

"When we had control of the ball, things were looking good, but we lost the ball too much," said Lam. "At half-time I said to them 'Hey, guys, we've been here before'. We were disappointed by the way we'd played in the first half, but I still felt we had a chance right to the end. But that's the traditional way games with Wasps go. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong end again."

An early hit on his suspect shoulder clearly hampered the big Samoan's mobility, though two giant tackles in the second half were a tribute to his bravery. Lam is the talisman of this Saints side and his presence was vital, but John Steele, the director of rugby, must question if a half-fit captain is worthy of a place in the European Cup final. Lifting the morale of the team in time for the next final is the huge task facing both men. If Northampton do it, 120 years in the waiting room will be time well spent.

In a morbid sense, Saints' prolonged agonies made a compelling spectacle. The old Franklins Garden bear-baiters would have appreciated the gore. Only when Mark Denney trundled over in the dying minutes was the game made safe by the London side. As he ran behind the posts to seal Wasps' win, Grayson stretched out his arm in congratulation, a decent gesture from the loser. At the final whistle, Wasps' relief quickly turned to ecstasy, but by the time they re-emerged on to the field to complete a lap of honour, the stadium was deserted. Something unbelievably exciting, indeed. No one was fooled.