Wasps 22 Perpignan 14: King leads Wasps whizz-kids towards the promised land

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The Independent Online

There was a dash of déjà vu, which was quite horrifying for a minute or two, and a splash of what might have been, which was really rather enjoyable in a wistful kind of way. And through it all, Wasps reminded a disappointingly small audience at Adams Park - being the creatures of habit they are, rugby supporters outside the traditional union strongholds flatly refuse to change their weekend routines, irrespective of how important a game might be - of the reasons they deserve to fill a stadium the size of Twickenham, rather than half-fill one hidden away in an anonymous corner of High Wycombe.

Wasps followers have grown used to watching their team on a Sunday afternoon, to the extent that a change of timetabling has a drastic effect on the gate. As the Great God Television decreed this game should take place a day early - the broadcasters run the sport these days, as Andy Robinson found to his cost during the autumn internationals - only 7,620 made the effort to attend. More fool the ones who went to Homebase instead. There were clear signs here that Wasps have rediscovered the best of themselves, and are in the process of adding to it.

Now they have pieced together a functioning scrum and a dependable line-out, there is no earthly reason why the nomadic Londoners should not win the Heineken Cup for a second time. (They possessed neither asset when they won the title in 2004, which should make them feel even better about their chances this time round). If Perpignan, all beef and brawn and dark malevolence, crossed the Channel thinking they might bully their hosts into submission, they quickly found themselves thinking again as they were scrummaged from one end of Buckinghamshire to the other.

This was no mean feat, given the presence of Perry Freshwater, hot favourite for the England loose-head berth against Scotland next month, in their front row. Freshwater freely admitted afterwards that his direct opponent, a certain Phil Vickery, had turned in a "champion" performance of the kind that leaves those on the receiving end wondering why they took up this stupid game in the first place. As Tim Payne, the other loose head in Brian Ashton's 33-man party for the Six Nations Championship, played every bit as well as Vickery and probably better, those members of the red rose hierarchy most concerned with forward matters must have taken considerable pleasure in the manner of Wasps' victory.

Even so, it was not without its grim moments, the grimmest of which came early in the second half when Vickery charged, shoulder first, into the substantial Romanian flanker Ovidiu Tonita before keeling over like a man shot with an elephant gun. Immediately there were fears for the new England captain's well-being. Had his back gone again, for the umpteenth time? His neck, perhaps? As it happened, he had caught Tonita's elbow full in the face and pretty much knocked himself out. Vickery was a passenger for the rest of the game and left the stadium with the mother of all headaches, but it could have been far worse.

Alex King, on the other hand, had himself a ball in a relentlessly physical encounter that occasionally crossed the line of the acceptable. The outside-half did all the things that briefly attracted Clive Woodward to his cause - he would have played in the first game of the Woodward regime back in 1997, but for injury - and led Perpignan a merry dance with the intelligence of his positioning, the subtlety of his distribution and the certitude of his decision-making. What was more, he tackled his weight and contributed what may well have been the finest goal-kicking display of his long career. A good day's work, all things considered.

"These games are running out for the likes of me and some of my colleagues," said the 32-year-old, "so you have to grasp them when they come around. I always believed I could kick to a high level, so I wouldn't say I'm surprised at how well it went out there. Can I do it every week, home and away? That's the challenge, isn't it? I want to win something with Wasps this season, and I want to win something big. We now have a game in Castres next weekend where everything is possible for both teams. At my time of life, it's a match worth relishing."

Increasingly, the Wasps story is being written by young, home-produced talent. People like Danny Cipriani, whose running game from full-back occasionally took the breath away. "I had an outside break like Danny's, once upon a time," King mused. "I think it must have been 1996."

Cipriani was not alone. Dominic Waldouck was cucumber-cool in midfield, scoring his side's try by charging down a clearance from Nicolas Laharrague and tearing off towards the sticks. Then there was the flanker Tom Rees, who made a marvellous try-saving tackle on Nicolas Durand, just as the scrum-half was threatening to bring Perpignan within striking range with a dart down the left touchline.

They have something about them, these babes in arms. But when it comes to winning Heineken Cups, the kids tend to look to the old fuddy-duddies. Vickery seemed in prime nick until he ran into Tonita's funny bone; Lawrence Dallaglio, all growl and attitude, delivered his best 80 minutes of the campaign. As for King ... well, it is hard to believe he has ever played better. If he had shown this kind of nerve, this kind of strength and conviction, a decade ago, rather than betrayed a fragility that persuaded Woodward to look elsewhere, would Jonny Wilkinson have been fast-tracked into international rugby in quite the way he was? Now there's a thought.

Wasps: Try Waldouck; Conversion King; Penalties King 5. Perpignan: Try Tonita; Penalties N Laharrague 2, Meyer.

Wasps: D Cipriani; P Sackey, D Waldouck, J Lewsey, T Voyce; A King, E Reddan (S Amor, 75); T Payne, R Ibañez (J Ward, 75), P Vickery (P Bracken, 75), S Shaw, T Palmer, J Worsley, J O'Connor (T Rees, 49), L Dallaglio (capt).

Perpignan: J Laharrague; C Manas, J-P Grandclaude, G Hume, S Dawai Naulu; N Laharrague (S Meyer, 62), N Durand; P Freshwater (capt), M Konieck (M Tincu 62), N Mas (S Bozzi, 76), C Gaston (R Alvarez Kairelis, 3-7 & 16), O Olibeau, G Le Corvec, O Tonita, G Bortolaso (Tincu, 43-53 & V Vaki, 66).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).

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