It could be called Murphy's Law. A festive crowd of more than 20,000 paid good money to watch two of the high flyers in the Zurich Premiership, but London Irish chose the day to produce a turkey. The attendance was a Premiership record for the Madejski Stadium and fell only 475 short of the record established by Bristol v Bath last May. That encounter attracted the curiosity of the morbid as it was concerned with relegation.
This was rather different, as Wasps were in second place, the Irish third. The kick-off was delayed by half an hour because of traffic congestion, but Wasps soon made up for lost time. The game was only 100 seconds old when Wasps launched a great counterattack through Tom Voyce on the left wing. But they lost possession close to the Irish line where Bob Casey, receiving a pass in front of his posts, was executing a clearance kick in his mind when he took his eye off the ball and dropped it. It then bounced into the grateful arms of Richard Birkett, who galloped over for a try which was wrapped in gift paper.
Presented with a 7-0 lead while spectators were still trying to get into the ground, Wasps accepted the points and were never headed despite a comeback of sorts by the Irish. Very little went right for the home side and when they lost their stand-off Mark Mapletoft, very briefly, his replacement Matt Cannon immediately fluffed a relatively easy penalty kick before retreating to the bench.
A fit-again Mapletoft then missed another penalty attempt which summed up the Irish story. Their forwards won a lot of possession and most of it was squandered, either through poor handling and passing or aimless and brainless kicking.
Wasps couldn't believe their luck. Alex King, who had converted Birkett's try, kicked a penalty after 21 minutes. Six minutes later the stand-off linked with Paul Volley and the flanker, finding an exceptional angle, ran through the heart of what should have been the Irish defence to send Voyce over unopposed.
Wasps, who beat Saracens 41-0 last week, were 17-0 to the good and although the Irish forwards continued to win the lion's share of possession their use of it was for the most part woeful. Culprit in chief was Mapletoft whose habit of delivering elongated passes had interception written all over it. From one, Voyce raced 60 yards before being collared close to the tryline.
Towards the end of the first half, Justin Bishop (one of the few Irishmen in a very cosmopolitan line-up) finally got the crowd excited with a terrific run. But when he off-loaded to Paul Sackey, the wing knocked on and Wasps, their counterattack launched by a smart reverse pass from Peter Richards, nearly scored at the other end. Just on half-time Mapletoft got the Irish on the board with a penalty.
It was during the interval that the crowd were brought to their feet as Lawrence Dallaglio and Stuart Abbott paraded the World Cup around the ground to tremendous applause. Two of England's World Cup-winning squad were followed on their lap of honour by an Irish wolfhound, the home club's mascot, and the dog might have thought he was the best in show at Crufts.
The Irish continued to make more turnovers than Mr Kipling but Mapletoft gave them some hope with penalties in the 45th and 55th minutes and a beautifully struck drop-goal from 40 yards after 62 minutes. That made it 12-17 but then Casey fell blatantly offside at a ruck and King slotted a simple penalty which was the signal for Wasps to raise their game once again.
The Irish defence performed heroics to keep out a wave of close-range attacks, but when they ran out of bodies Wasps' full-back Mark van Gisbergen found himself unmarked on the left after receiving a pass from King.
Although they were without Dallaglio and Abbott, Wasps were able to beef up their attack with the introduction in the last quarter of Rob Howley, Trevor Leota and Ayoola Erinle. The Irish never gave up the ghost and produced their first try in the 77th minute when, for once, Mapletoft's long pass found its target in full-back Michael Horak who took it at pace to sprint over at the posts.
The deficit was back to eight points but in the final minute Erinle got a bonus point for Wasps, scoring their fourth try with an irresistible mixture of pace and power.
"I don't think you can spot a weakness in the Wasps side," Conor O'Shea, the Irish managing director, said before the kick-off. "They provide the ultimate test. They are, in our opinion, the best side in England and it will be a good measure of how far we have come and have to travel to be the best ourselves." They now know the answer.
Although the crowd fell just short of the record, the figure of 20,318 helped to boost yesterday's aggregate to 68,407, easily surpassing the previous best total of 65,046.
London Irish 19 Wasps 34
Try: Horak Tries: Birkett, Voyce, Van Gisbergen, Erinle
Con: Mapletoft; Cons: King 4
Pens: Mapletoft 3; Pens: King 2
Half-time: 3-17 Attendance: 20,318
London Irish: M Horak; P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley (M Cannon, 67) J Bishop; M Mapletoft, D Edwards; N Hatley, N Drotske, R Hardwick, R Strudwick (capt), B Casey, P Gustard (K Roche, 49), C Sheasby (A Flavin, 55), D Danaher (P Murphy, 26).
Wasps: M van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, F Waters, M Denney (A Erinle, 66), T Voyce; A King, P Richards (R Howley, 61); C Dowd (capt), P Greening (T Leota, 61), W Green (T Payne, 61), S Shaw, R Birkett (M Purdy, 51), P Volley, J Worsley, J O'Connor.
Referee: C White (Cheltenham).Reuse content