Wasps 37 London Irish 56: Rampant Irish leave Wasps facing early end

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The Independent Online

There were 17 minutes to go until the end of the first half when this mind-boggling game took on the grey pallor of any old Premiership fixture, such was the relentlessness of the physicality and the scarcity of the try-scoring chances.

There were scrums and line-outs and all manner of ugly things. There was even a penalty by Mark van Gisbergen to remind everyone of what they were meant to be watching. As for the rest - well, hang out the bunting. Wasps, the champions, are struggling to make the play-offs because London Irish delivered what the French would call the performance from the ends of the earth.

They scored a try within 35 seconds of the kick-off and kept on scoring them for much of the remainder of the evening. They managed nine in all, from seven players.

Irish are assured of a place in the play-offs, and good on them. A few weeks ago, when their Australian coach, Brian Smith, was asked to identify the principles underpinning his rugby credo, he answered thus: "I'm in the Brian Ashton camp when it comes to running rugby. Four tries a game and I'd die happy." He can die twice over now, for his team took his dream and doubled it.

"Extraordinary," he said last night. "That was probably the best performance I can remember, either as a player or as a coach. I say that because of the quality of the opposition. Yes, there was a freakish element to the game - seven tries in the first 20 minutes tells you that much. But what really pleased me was our response when Wasps scored straight after the interval. That was a test of our resolve, and we held firm to our beliefs."

Quite how Shaun Edwards, so successful as Wasps' defence coach that he has been linked with the England job vacated by Phil Larder last week, saw events at the Causeway Stadium is anybody's guess. The Londoners have never conceded so many tries, or as many points, in a Premiership match. The Lancastrian can confidently be expected to beat himself up for the rest of the campaign, which will end early for the holders if they are defeated by Gloucester at Kingsholm this weekend. Judging by the look on his face at certain moments yesterday, he may never get over it.

The tit-for-tat scoring that made the first quarter such a flabbergasting affair left the visitors ahead 22-19. When the holders outscored Irish in the second quarter to reach the break at 29-apiece, and then hit them with a sucker-punch try from Tom Voyce within seconds of the restart, they looked good bets for the spoils.

But the Exiles were so imaginative in their counter-attacking and so determined in their quest for turnover ball on the floor that there was never a moment when they were out of the game. They did things to Wasps' "blitz" defence that no side has managed in recent memory.

Mike Catt - wanted by Bath in a coaching role but so revered by Irish that he will need the hardest of hearts to spurn their offer of a new contract - restored his side's lead by cottoning on to the cleverest of kicks from Riki Flutey, and when Delon Armitage ran in from distance after cutting off Jeremy Staunton's pass to Stuart Abbott, they had the breathing space they craved.

Van Gisbergen's second penalty pulled Wasps back to within six points, but Flutey answered in kind from the right touch-line four minutes into injury time. Irish then topped and tailed it with two further tries in the closing seconds. Had the final whistle not been blown, they would still be scoring now.

Wasps: Tries Voyce 3, Erinle, Staunton; Conversions Van Gisbergen 3; Penalties Van Gisbergen 2.

London Irish: Tries Ojo 2, Flutey 2, Feau'nati, Tagicakibau, Casey, Catt, Armitage; Conversions Catt 4; Penalty Flutey.

Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey (J Lewsey 49), A Erinle, S Abbott (F Waters 82), T Voyce; J Staunton, E Reddan; T Payne, R Ibanez (J Ward h-t), P Bracken (J Va'a 51-59), S Shaw, R Birkett, D Leo (J Haskell 68), M Lock (J Worsley 49), L Dallaglio (capt).

London Irish: D Armitage; T Ojo, M Catt (capt), D Feau'nati (G Tiesi 62), S Tagicakibau; R Flutey, P Hodgson (B Willis 59); N Hatley (M Collins 42), D Paice (R Russell 51), R Skuse (Paice 73), R Casey (N Kennedy 53), K Roche, D Danaher, O Magne (Russell 39-43), J-M Leguizamon (P Murphy 62).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Somerset).

* The Rugby Football Union's chief executive, Francis Baron, has insisted that he has not blocked Sir Clive Woodward's return to Twickenham as élite rugby director. It had been thought that any possible return of Woodward could be vetoed because of the fractious nature of his departure as England head coach in 2004.

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