Wasps 24 Munster 23: Skivington saves day for Wasps

Second-row charges in to decide a thrilling match between European royalty in favour of the reigning champions
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A defeat in the early stages of the Heineken Cup need not be terminal – Wasps and Leicester reached last season's final despite dropping points the previous autumn – but in a pool inhabited only by killer whales the reigning champions could afford no opening slip-up. Wasps duly gritted their teeth and, though it appeared for a long while as if they had bitten off more in Munster than they could chew, a saving try by George Skivington saw them home at their adopted home.

"In the pool you just have to win, to scrap for everything you can and see what happens at the end of it all," said Lawrence Dallaglio, Wasps' captain. "We will get to the mathematics later on."

What, you may ask, was this meeting between the winners of three of the last four Heineken Cups – Wasps in 2004 and 2007, Munster in 2006 – doing in Coventry? Wasps are suffering growing pains, brought on by the 10,000 capacity at their Wycombe home. Still the club are not of a size to reach the Ricoh Arena's 32,000 limit – nor did they for last season's Heineken Cup semi, against Northampton – even with Munster's famous away support.

Likewise, Munster feel they have outgrown Limerick's Thomond Park, although their Heineken Cup pool matches will be played there, without floodlights, while the builders have a break. They came here without their injured captain, Paul O'Connell; the stand-in skipper, Ronan O'Gara, sent up a series of garryowens designed to test Wasps' Paul Sackey and Mark van Gisbergen at the back.

In the fifth minute Sackey batted the ball infield, Wasps fell offside and O'Gara's penalty gave Munster the lead. The Irish side were soon 6-3 up after Danny Cipriani's penalty for Wasps followed by another by O'Gara.

Munster's tactics also embraced plenty of ball in hand for their centres, Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi – the first a New Zealand Maori captain, the other a Tongan-born New Zealand Under-21 cap. Wasps' famed rush defence shackled them for 20 minutes until O'Gara's pass direct from a scrum was well taken by Mafi and with a smart hand-off he put Tipoki over for a try, converted by O'Gara.

Wasps levelled with a penalty by Cipriani, for Munster killing a ruck, and within 60 seconds of that score Riki Flutey ran clear for a try after Munster's full-back, Shaun Payne, slapped a box-kick by Eoin Reddan down to no one in particular. Cipriani converted for 13-13.

Reddan of Wasps, of course, was the scrum-half who displaced Munster's Peter Stringer during Ireland's sad World Cup campaign. Sackey has better memories of France 2007 but even star turns have to check their studs and the wing appeared to have the wrong ones. First he slipped when Cipriani, one of England's brightest young things, slipped him a tapped penalty. Stringer got an arm under the ball and a try went begging.

Then O'Gara dabbed an outside-of-the-boot kick through, Sackey slipped again and Payne scored Munster's second try, O'Gara converting for a 20-13 half-time lead.

Dallaglio, like Sackey, was a flame to Munster's red-jerseyed moths. The 35-year-old could find no space and was reduced to his time-honoured strutting and stalking – at one point he tapped his head to indicate to Alan Quinlan a shortfall in the Irishman's mental department. Dallaglio was replaced after 53 minutes by John Hart, who joined two contenders for England's back row of the next decade, Tom Rees and James Haskell. This coincided with an increase in Wasps pressure.

Munster were entitled to feel aggrieved when their right wing, Brian Carney, was denied a try-scoring opportunity at the right-hand corner as he was manhandled after the ball had gone by Wasps' Fraser Waters. It was probably not quite a penalty try but Waters was lucky to escape a yellow card. After O'Gara's penalty there were two more by Cipriani, the second punishing the Munster prop Marcus Horan for dabbling around the side of a ruck. He was sent to the sin-bin by Malcolm Changleng.

That was the cue for a fabulous try which put Wasps ahead for the first time. Flutey's pacey run was at its source, Tom Voyce's support was crucial and Skivington finished at the gallop. Cipriani then sent the conversion wide, having previously been unerring with the boot.

The same could be said of O'Gara but he turned down a penalty chance from the halfway line in a frantic final 10 minutes and Wasps held out.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; P Sackey, F Waters, R Flutey, T Voyce; D Cipriani, E Reddan; T Payne (M Holford, 65; D Leo, 77), R Ibanez, N Adams (J Ward, 72), S Shaw, G Skivington, J Haskell, L Dallaglio (capt; J Hart, 53), T Rees

Munster: S Payne; B Carney, R Tipoki, L Mafi, A Horgan; R O'Gara (capt), P Stringer; M Horan (A Foley, 77), J Flannery, J Hayes (T Buckley, 40; J Paringatai, 77), D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, A Quinlan, D Leamy, D Wallace.

Referee M Changleng (Scotland).

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