Wasps leave Sale on last legs

Wasps 43 - Sale 22
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The Independent Online

Say what you like about the play-offs, and there are plenty of people who think they are an unnecessary extension to an already prolonged season, but this meeting between the teams who finished second and third in the Premiership had everything, some of which was not what the doctor ordered. And that was just the first half.

Say what you like about the play-offs, and there are plenty of people who think they are an unnecessary extension to an already prolonged season, but this meeting between the teams who finished second and third in the Premiership had everything, some of which was not what the doctor ordered. And that was just the first half.

At this stage of proceedings players are supposed to be on their last legs yet Wasps and Sale threw the lot into a match which ended with Wasps winning the right to play Leicester in the final at Twickenham on Saturday. If that is half as eventful it will be unmissable.

Sale's cause was not helped by head injuries to two of their Lions, the stand off Charlie Hodgson and the hooker Andy Titterrell. Hodgson was taken off after an accidental clash of heads with the huge Wasps lock Simon Shaw in the 28th minute.

Shaw was all right but Hodgson did not know what day it was and he was replaced by Richard Wrigglesworth, a scrum-half. Titterrell also did not know whether he was coming or going, suffering a cut head early in the second half which left him dazed and groggy. With a bit of luck both should be fit for Sale's European Challenge Cup Final against Pau in a fortnight's time.

Wasps, however, will be without their promising young flanker Tom Rees. The England Under-21 captain was carried off in the second half with an injury to his left knee and afterwards he was on crutches as the Wasps squad bade an emotional farewell to their coach Warren Gatland. Gatland, in charge of his last home match, returns to New Zealand at the end of the season.

In the end Wasps won by four goals, four penalties and a drop goal to two goals, a try and a penalty. Before they were hit by injuries Sale looked full of running, but by the finish it would become something of a nightmare. They also lost the wing Steve Hanley with a leg injury and finished with only 12 fit players. The replacement flanker John Carter suffered a dislocated shoulder.

Wasps, who were hammered by Leicester last weekend, are past masters in the play-offs. They finished second in the Premiership in the last two seasons, played their way into the final and duly won the title at Twickenham, which is almost their second home.

They owed yesterday's triumph to a magnificent second half, during which they scored 26 unanswered points. The full-back Mark van Gisbergen kicked immaculately, landing four penalties and converting all four of Wasps' tries as the referee Dave Pearson added insult to Sale's heavy casualty list by penalising them off the Causeway, particularly in the second half.

If Sale felt hard done by it is not surprising. For example, in the 34th minute Sébastien Chabal, Sale's outstanding No 8, caught Matt Dawson in possession and drove him back 10 yards, in the course of which the England scrum-half lost possession. Dawson did not take kindly to being manhandled and set about Chabal, first with an elbow and then a couple of punches. The Frenchman's response was to tap his adversary on the head. While they were having their tête a tête, Sale scored a try through Jason Robinson, who crossed at the post only to discover that the touch judge David Kirk had raised his flag and was having a consultation with the referee. Presumably it was to alert Pearson to Dawson's loss of temper. Not a bit of that. The referee lectured Chabal, awarded Wasps a penalty and Robinson's try was disallowed. Sacre bleu!, as Chabal might have said.

Chabal, who is built like the Pyrenees, gave Sale the lead after 11 minutes when he smashed through Dawson for the first try following a fumble by Shaw. Wasps responded with a marvellous try which was started by Rees five yards from his own line and finished by the young flanker. The move would never have survived but for a brilliant piece of work by Joe Worsley, who prevented a knock-on by diving to stop the ball hitting the ground after Josh Lewsey had lost possession.

Lewsey then turned a 10-3 deficit into a 17-10 lead with a stunning try from 80 yards, swerving inside to leave Robinson for dead. Sale hit back with a little purple patch of their own, Jason White scoring thanks to Wrigglesworth and Robert Todd and then Hodgson's replacement put in a perfect kick for Mark Cueto to score. It was Cueto's eighth try in five matches since being left out of the Lions party.

At half time Sale led 22-17 but then everything that could go wrong did. Wasps scored two tries, Ayoola Erinle crossing from an offload by Alex King, and the stand-off also linked with Shaw for the lock to go over at the posts. Wasps scored 20 points in as many minutes and if the match had gone on any longer Sale would have been reduced to playing sevens.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; P Sackey, A Erinle, J Lewsey (J Mbu, 80), T Voyce; A King, M Dawson (W Fury, 80); T Payne (C Dowd, 68), P Greening (T Leota, 68), W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett (M Purdy, 76), J Worsley, T Rees (J Hart, 70), L Dallaglio (capt).

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, J Baxendell (O Ripol, 65), R Todd, S Hanley; C Hodgson (R Wrigglesworth, 28), B Redpath (S Martens, 72); B Coutts (S Turner, 49), A Titterrell (S Bruno, 45), B Stewart, J White, D Schofield, C Jones, M Lund (J Carter, 32), S Chabal.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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