It is a neat trick by the mandarins of European rugby to make a seventh-place finish in a league of 12 teams the subject of fascination by offering a play-off with the corresponding team in the French league for entry into next season’s European Champions Cup.
After this clownish contest of 11 tries and disastrous defending, Wasps are in good shape to go forward into the home-and-away qualifier later this month, which will be against Stade Français. A trip to Paris would be an unexpected upshot for Wasps supporters whose memories of titles and trophies have been growing ever more distant in recent years.
Newcastle’s mood was entirely at odds with losing for the 15th league match running. Their salvation for another crack at the Premiership after promotion last summer has been Worcester’s even worse record. The long slog to survival was shaped early on, when the Falcons bagged three wins in September and October.
“I suppose there was a sigh of relief at the end,” said Dean Richards, Newcastle’s ever-phlegmatic director of rugby, who felt sufficiently disinterested in Worcester’s score to bat away anyone trying to give him an update.
“We didn’t know until 29 May last year whether we’d be promoted, so it gave us no time to prepare from a squad or conditioning point of view. In that respect this has been a job well done – but we’d have liked more wins.”
The common bond among the Premiership’s bottom-feeders is the players they have produced who are now doing their thing for more successful clubs. Before their relegation in 2012 Newcastle had spent 15 seasons in the top division, although the only time they have finished higher than sixth was at their first attempt: the title-winning 1997-98 season. Think of Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood (ex-Worcester), Danny Cipriani (ex-Wasps), Delon and Steffon Armitage, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson (ex-London Irish), and the Newcastle products Jonny Wilkinson, Mat Tait, Toby Flood and Geoff Parling.
A new Wasps squad is taking shape, with half-a-dozen signings for next season. Seventh place and the European play-off on the weekends of 17 and 24 May are not definitely theirs just yet – Wasps are nine points ahead of Exeter, who host Harlequins today and go to Newcastle next Saturday, when Wasps are at Northampton – and Dai Young, Wasps’ director of rugby, said: “We’re not counting our chickens.”
Newcastle, comfortably the league’s lowest try-scorers, led 17-0 after 15 minutes, then conceded four tries on the spin to trail 29-17 at half-time before moving ahead again 31-29 at the end of the third quarter with two tries by the wing Noah Cato. Wasps reasserted themselves with a try by Will Helu – a brilliant diving effort by the wing to catch Andy Goode’s cross-kick – plus a penalty by Goode and a try in the 70th minute by Charlie Hayter converted by Goode.
Two late yellow cards for Hayter and his captain, James Haskell, assisted in Newcastle grabbing their fifth try through George McGuigan, converted by the fly-half Joel Hodgson for a personal haul of 18 points. “It was a beautiful spring day, and if I’d been playing it would have been a nightmare for me,” Richards smiled. “I felt for the big boys.”
McGuigan, the hooker, was one of 11 former academy players used by Newcastle; a heartening statistic seized on by Richards. As for Wasps, their season has suffered from their star wings, Christian Wade and Tom Varndell, playing together only once due to injury. The pair contributed 26 tries last season; this time around Wasps have lost seven league matches by fewer than five points.
Nevertheless there were other eye-catching contributions, as well as a telling one from the crowd, who failed to raise the slightest cheer when news that their landlords, Wycombe Wanderers had avoided relegation out of the Football League was announced. Wasps see their long-term prosperity requiring a move to their own ground, although it is completely unclear when or where that will be.
Newcastle’s sense of imminent escape was quickly translated into free-running tries by Mike Blair and Hodgson, with a Hodgson penalty in between. But Wasps responded, with Nathan Hughes, the Pacific islander who may one day qualify for England on residency, hammering forward for two tries before a bang on the shin and a slight calf strain forced the No 8 off.
The first of Hughes’s scores was from a line-out catch and drive, and Ashley Johnson repeated the feat for Wasps after 28 minutes. Joe Simpson, the Wasps scrum-half, nipped in just before half-time after a skilful chip and chase by the ever-watchable Elliot Daly.
To the rugby denizens of Adams Park it may still feel a long way back to the glory days of Dallaglio and Co, even with the help of a new play-off system, but there are men of character gathering here. The incoming recruits, who include the exciting Samoa back Alapati Leiua, will make Young’s job easier, he said, “by giving us competition for places.”
Wasps: A Masi (T Bell 75); W Helu, E Daly, C Hayter, T Varndell; A Goode (J Carlisle 73), J Simpson (C Davies 61); M Mullan (S McIntyre 64), C Festuccia (T Lindsay 54), P Swainston (T Vea 73), J Launchbury (J Cannon 73), T Palmer, A Johnson, J Haskell (capt), N Hughes (S Jones 41, Cannon 43-48).
Newcastle: A Tait; N Cato, G Tiesi (L Smith 64-67), J Fitzpatrick (Smith 73), S Sinoti; J Hodgson, M Blair (W Fury 73); R Vickers (Brookes 78), S Lawson (G McGuigan 41), K Brookes (O Tomaszczyk 41), S MacLeod, D Barrow (H Spencer 73), R Mayhew (A Saull 64), W Welch (capt), M Wilson.
Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).