Sackey impresses too late for Lions but Hill returns to old ways in time

Wasps 45 Saracens 24
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The Independent Online

Another day, another capacity audience, another opportunity - positively the last one - for the more upwardly mobile members of the Premiership community to shake a leg and raise a hand in pursuit of Lions preferment. There were a fair few of them at it in deepest Buckinghamshire yesterday, from Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill among the old lags to Joe Worsley and Ayoola Erinle among the fresh-faced innocents. Then there was Paul Sackey, a long streak of attacking hostility lurking with intent on the Wasps wing.

Another day, another capacity audience, another opportunity ­ positively the last one ­ for the more upwardly mobile members of the Premiership community to shake a leg and raise a hand in pursuit of Lions preferment. There were a fair few of them at it in deepest Buckinghamshire yesterday, from Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill among the old lags to Joe Worsley and Ayoola Erinle among the fresh-faced innocents. Then there was Paul Sackey, a long streak of attacking hostility lurking with intent on the Wasps wing.

Paul who? Precisely. The seven-a-side specialist is now in his 27th year, and far too many of the previous 26 were frittered away at London Irish, waiting for passes that never came his way. Midway through the season, he suddenly upped sticks and headed across the Thames to try his luck with a side who not only knew what a wing looked like, but also where he might be found. The result? A complete makeover, from tip to toe. Sackey now looks like the player he should have been ages ago ­ that is to say, a match winner.

He certainly did for Saracens, scoring two of the five first-half tries for Wasps, the Premiership champions. If the first was a jog-in, courtesy of a clever cut-out pass from Josh Lewsey, the second was an absolute jewel ­ an in-out solo routine that left the unfortunate Ben Johnston in a state of advanced mystification. In fact, Johnston is still wandering around the perimeter of the Causeway Stadium, searching high and low for his opposite number. Give it up now, Ben. Quicker wings than you will lose track of Sackey over the next few seasons.

Of course, the uncapped Sackey will not be among the umpteen New Zealand-bound Lions named by Sir Clive Woodward today. He has oodles of potential, but as none of it has been realised in the context of Test rugby, this explosion of scoreboard-rotating activity was in the category of far too little, far too late. But two colleagues of considerable seniority, Dallaglio and Shaun Edwards, were united in their praise for his latest contribution to their title defence, and both hinted at great things to come. Indeed, Edwards mentioned him in the same breath as Martin Offiah, no less.

"I see him making the kind of impact Martin made when he joined us at Wigan," said the coach, whose own rugby league exploits at Central Park were the stuff of legend. "He's a special player. Like Martin, he needed a couple of games to settle into a new situation; like Martin, he can turn a game."

For his part, Dallaglio thought Sackey ready to move to the next level and challenge for serious international honours. "He's out of his comfort zone here, because he's competing against some very good players," said the former England captain. "But he's sharp, and he'll win tight games for us."

This game was not remotely tight enough for Hill to make his customary impression. Worsley, the World Cup-winning flanker's successor in the England back row, had Wasps on the board inside five minutes ­ a desperately soft try that exposed Saracens' midfield defence in all its inadequacy ­ and by the interval, the gap had grown into a chasm at 38-10. But if Woodward craved confirmation of Hill's readiness to resume his trade after six months of incapacitation following a gruesome injury to his left knee, he was granted it here.

Summoned to the field some seven minutes into the second half, his first act was to concede one of the more obvious penalties of the zillions awarded by Steve Lander down the years. He then withstood a testing collision with the muscular Lewsey and a blood-curdling pile-up with the formidably constructed Simon Shaw before treating the 10,000 crowd to a flash of unalloyed quality by stripping the ball from Dallaglio on the floor.

He looked lean, mean and full of energy, and when he ran the best part of 20 metres for a late try, leaving the previously impeccable Mark van Gisbergen for dead in the process, Woodward must have jumped for joy.

Despite the size of the Lions squad, by some distance the biggest touring party in the annals of the sport, Woodward cannot take everybody, and the frenzy of speculation was at its height yesterday. Matthew Dawson angrily rebuffed reports that he had already been told of his failure to make the cut, and his candidacy for one of the four scrum-half positions was supported anew by his head coach at Wasps, Warren Gatland.

"Why wouldn't you take someone with his experience," the New Zealander asked, incredulously. "He knows what it is to operate in the cauldron of All Black rugby, to win a Test match over there. If the selectors choose some of the young pups from the other countries, they'll find themselves struggling."

Only this much was certain by close of play in High Wycombe: the champions will definitely be involved in the Premiership play-offs, having guaranteed themselves a top-two finish by beating Saracens so heavily. They might even sneak past Leicester on the last day of the regular season and qualify automatically for the final at Twickenham on 14 May. Welford Road is not one of rugby's more obvious "Wendy houses", but if anyone can demolish it, Wasps can.

Wasps: Tries Worsley 2, Sackey 2, Erinle, Voyce; Conversions Van Gisbergen 6; Penalty Van Gisbergen. Saracens: Tries Cairns, Sorrell, Hill; Conversions Little 3; Penalty Little.

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey, A Erinle, J Lewsey (R Hoadley, 75), T Voyce; A King (J Brooks, 50), M Dawson (P Richards, 75); C Dowd (T Payne, 69), P Greening (T Leota, 69), W Green, S Shaw (M Purdy, 75), R Birkett, J Worsley, T Rees, L Dallaglio (capt; J Hart, 72).

Saracens: M Bartholomeusz; T Vaikona, T Castaignède, D Harris (K Sorrell, h-t), B Johnston; N Little, K Bracken (M Rauluni, h-t); K Yates (N Lloyd, 53), M Cairns (R Ibanez, 52), B Broster, S Raiwalui, I Fullarton (K Chesney, h-t), B Russell (R Hill, 46), D Seymour, H Vyvyan (capt).

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

* The Borders' attempt to complete Scotland's first Celtic League clean-sweep weekend was wrecked by a stunning Munster comeback at Netherdale yesterday. The Scots had looked on course to follow in the footsteps of Glasgow and Edinburgh as they surged to a 16-point half-time lead, but they faded badly and allowed the Irishmen to fight back with five tries to seal a 38-23 victory.

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