Line-outs have been going wrong in the union game since time immemorial, but it is not often that an international hooker throws the ball straight to his opposite number and allows him to score the crucial try in a European cup semi-final. The Italian forward Carlo Festuccia’s unusually extravagant act of generosity on Sunday turned a fiery Amlin Cup contest on its head: Bath, a little low on self-belief despite an obvious superiority at close quarters, were a lot more sure of themselves on receipt of their free gift.
David Young, the Wasps rugby director, could barely believe his eyes – particularly as the line-out concerned was a simple, straightforward, bog-standard banker of the two-man variety.
“It sums up our season,” muttered the Welshman through gritted teeth. “We work our socks off for our points, then give cheap ones away: not through lapses in defence, necessarily, but through lapses of communication or accuracy or focus.”
The Londoners had rocked their opponents to the core just shy of the interval when, after long minutes of unremitting misery on the painful end of a dozen driving mauls, they scored a try from the back end of beyond: a startling run down the right from the centre Elliot Daly, who stripped the one-time England back Matt Banahan bare in the process, and a joyous finish from the Tongan wing Will Helu. “I was walking towards the dressing room thinking we’d had the perfect half and that Wasps had shown nothing, and by the time I was halfway down the steps they were under our sticks,” said Mike Ford, the Bath head coach.
Helu’s converted try gave his side a 13-10 advantage and things would have looked better still had Matt Mullan’s scoring pass to Kearnan Myall not been judged marginally forward shortly after the break. It was a big moment.
The fateful line-out faux pas occurred in Bath’s next attack, Rob Webber seizing on Festuccia’s loose throw and flopping over the line, blissfully unmolested, for the softest score imaginable. What might have been 20-10 was now 17-13 in Bath’s favour, and when Webber crossed again a dozen minutes later from the back of another maul, the issue was pretty much settled.
There was reaction: Wasps’ Ashley Johnson, a forceful figure in the Wasps back row, found a way over in the left corner to keep the pot boiling. But Bath had done a proper job on the Londoners’ threatening breakaway unit: Guy Mercer’s clever work in the loose ensured that Nathan Hughes, the much talked about No 8 from Fiji, was uncharacteristically quiet for long periods. It was an inspired piece of selection by Bath, not to mention an acute piece of tactical analysis. The West Countrymen are nobody’s fools these days.
So Bath will meet Northampton in the final at Cardiff Arms Park next month. They also face Saints in a league fixture at the Recreation Ground this Friday, and may well run into them in the Premiership play-offs. Happily, you can’t get too much of a good thing.
Scorers: Wasps – Tries: Helu, Johnson. Conversion: Goode. Penalties: Goode 2. Bath – Tries: Webber 2, Perenise. Conversions: Ford 3. Penalty: Ford.
Wasps: A Masi; W Helu, E Daly, C Bell (capt, C Hayter 18), T Varndell; A Goode, J Simpson; M Mullan (T Vea 68), C Festuccia (T Lindsay 59), P Swainston (S McIntyre 59), J Launchbury, K Myall (T Palmer 59), A Johnson, J Haskell, N Hughes (S Jones 68).
Bath: N Abendanon; S Rokoduguni (A Watson 67), J Joseph, K Eastmond, M Banahan (G Henson 72); G Ford, P Stringer (M Young 64); N Catt (P James 49), R Webber (R Batty 64), A Perenise (D Wilson 49), S Hooper (capt), D Day, M Garvey (A Fa’osiliva 7), G Mercer (C Fearns 49), L Houston.
Referee: R Poite (France).