Van Gisbergen holds his nerve to keep Wasps in contention

Wasps 15 Toulouse 15
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The Independent Online

It takes some believing, but Toulouse have never beaten Wasps in this competition. Back in 1996, the Londoners sneaked the first meeting by the gossamer-thin margin of - um - 60 points, but that was the freakiest of freak results. Leaving aside the classic showpiece at Twickenham two years ago, the clubs have not exchanged pleasantries since. There were not too many pleasantries here, as it happened, but as usual, there was a compelling dimension to the contest that raised it above the common fare of most Premiership rugby, and a good deal of Test rugby too.

The Frenchmen scored two tries, the first of which was bitterly disputed by the Wasps coaching team. "When they took that tapped penalty, it was miles away from the mark," growled Ian McGeechan's principal lieutenant, Shaun Edwards. And the second? "If I hadn't been coaching, I'd have stood up and applauded it myself," Edwards acknowledged.

Vincent Clerc, materialising on the left wing some 80 metres away from his official position on the right, was the man who completed the score as Toulouse, two points adrift at the interval, went for the jugular in the opening minutes of the second half. But Clerc had it easy, notwithstanding the breathlessness of his cross-field run in support of his fellow back-line aristocrats. Yannick Jauzion and Florian Fritz, two midfielders of inter-planetary class, were the creative spirits behind this feat of sporting wonder, and there was a handy contribution from Gareth Thomas for good measure.

With Toulouse, the same question is always asked: how, in the name of all that is holy, do they fail to win important matches when they push back the boundaries of the attacking game on a weekly basis? Not for the first time, they reached the final minutes ahead, but somehow still vulnerable at 15-12. In the 2004 final, Rob Howley stole down the left touchline to pinch the game in injury time. Here, Paul Sackey did something similar with a sprint-kick routine and forced Yannick Nyanga into conceding a five-metre scrum. Toulouse collapsed it, Wasps were awarded a penalty and after some communal head-scratching, they opted to kick for goal and settle for a share of the spoils.

Of course, the deed had still to be done, and it was to Mark van Gisbergen's considerable credit that he hit the spot with the very last act of the match. Van Gisbergen has been burning in the purgatorial fires ever since England called him into their squad for the autumn internationals, and yesterday he was as prolific on the faux pas front as he had been in the calamitous recent matches at Sale and Edinburgh. But his marksmanship held up - rather like that chap Wilkinson who used to play a bit of Test rugby, it is as if he sees the excruciating demands of goal-kicking as a comfort rather than a chore, not least when everything is else is going to pot.

Wasps might have taken a bolder approach by re-setting the scrum and gambling on outright victory, but as McGeechan, their director of rugby, pointed out afterwards, failure would have left his side miles off the tournament pace. "By taking the draw, we have everything to play for," he said. "We'd have had nothing to play for had we taken nothing from the game."

Given the heat generated around the breakdown areas, it was no surprise that both sides suffered casualties that threaten to complicate life for Andy Robinson and Bernard Laporte, the head coaches of England and France respectively. Simon Shaw, struggling with a back condition, lasted only a half, while two first-choice Tricolores, the centre Fritz and the scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, were battered from one end of Buckinghamshire to the other and failed to go the distance.

But Robinson will be fretting most over the full-back shirt, which had been earmarked for Van Gisbergen. "The most important thing for Mark is that he focuses on his next match and the things he knows he does well," said McGeechan. "He's having different things thrown at him now he's in the England set-up and he has to come to terms with it. This time last year, there was nothing else on his horizon."

Van Gisbergen's first penalty yesterday was a long-range effort from the centre spot, and he fluffed it horribly. But he landed three easier shots either side of the visitors' opening try, which stemmed from Elissalde's quick-thinking scuttle from a penalty award, Trevor Brennan's unusually cultured kick ahead and a sliding finish from Thomas, and in so doing, he kept his side at the races.

"Those kicks should do him the world of good," said his captain, Lawrence Dallaglio. The whole of England must hope he turns out to be correct.

Wasps: Penalties Van Gisbergen 5. Toulouse: Tries Thomas, Clerc. Conversion Elissalde. Drop goal Michalak.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; P Sackey, J Lewsey, S Abbott, T Voyce; A King (J Brooks, 80), M Dawson; T Payne, R Ibañez, J Dawson (P Bracken, 68), S Shaw (G Skivington, 40), R Birkett, J Hart, J O'Connor, L Dallaglio (capt; T Rees, 71).

Toulouse: G Thomas; V Clerc, F Fritz (C Poitrenaud, 59), Y Jauzion, C Heymans; F Michalak, J-B Elissalde (J-F Dubois, 75); J-B Poux (G Menkarska, 11-25), Y Bru (capt), O Hasan, F Pelous (R Millo-Chlusky, 52-54; G Lamboley, 78), T Brennan (Millo-Chlusky, 60), J Bouilhou, F Maka, I Maka (Y Nyanga, 69).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).