Wasps put to sleep by Birkett's 'own goal'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If it is bitterly frustrating to lose by a mere three points against the classiest team in Europe and more exasperating still to see your Heineken Cup ambitions spiked by an injury-time fumble behind the opposition line, it is almost too much for flesh and blood to stand to concede the rugby equivalent of an own goal. Diego Dominguez, the Argentine-Italian Francophile blessed with a complete set of golf clubs in his right boot, is rarely in need of help when it comes to putting a ball between the sticks: he is, after all, one of the most gifted marksmen ever to play the game. He was, however, profoundly grateful for Wasps' generosity in the final quarter of yesterday's edge-of-the-seat contest at Loftus Road.

If it is bitterly frustrating to lose by a mere three points against the classiest team in Europe and more exasperating still to see your Heineken Cup ambitions spiked by an injury-time fumble behind the opposition line, it is almost too much for flesh and blood to stand to concede the rugby equivalent of an own goal. Diego Dominguez, the Argentine-Italian Francophile blessed with a complete set of golf clubs in his right boot, is rarely in need of help when it comes to putting a ball between the sticks: he is, after all, one of the most gifted marksmen ever to play the game. He was, however, profoundly grateful for Wasps' generosity in the final quarter of yesterday's edge-of-the-seat contest at Loftus Road.

Stade Français were a full score ahead at 28-21 when Dominguez elected to attempt a 67th-minute penalty from seven metres inside his own half. The former captain of the Azzurri struck it beautifully - was there ever a time when he did otherwise? - but the ball, buffeted around from pillar to post by unpredictable gusts of wind, began to die as it neared the sticks. Two Wasps heavies hoisted Richard Birkett, their replacement loose forward, high into the West London gloom in search of an interception, but the youngster ended up tipping it over his own bar. David Seaman would have dined out on a save like that. Poor Birkett will not eat for a week.

No one could recall seeing anything quite like it, apart from John "Knuckles" Connolly, the been-there-and-done-it Queenslander who now coaches the increasingly impressive Parisian club. "I think our own John Eales was the first to try it: certainly, I saw him get two hands to a penalty shot in a match against Auckland and then drop it on his way down," smiled the Australian. "As I remember it, they scored a try from the scrum. That was something of a first out there today, though. Does it go on their scoresheet as well as ours?"

Connolly's opposite number, Nigel Melville, was somewhat less amused, although he attached no blame to Birkett for his ill-fated flash of enterprise. "Richard didn't get himself up there with the intention of giving them three points," he said. "Cruel? You could call it that. But there were a few little cruelties out there from our perspective. Shane Roiser is convinced he scored a legitimate first-half try, and if Josh Lewsey had caught Rob Henderson's cross-kick behind the Stade line at the death, we'd have won it. But rugby is full of 'what ifs' and 'if onlys'."

So Wasps are history, in this competition at least. It is no particular surprise: while Stade Français have the unmistakeable swagger of the best-equipped side in the tournament, the Londoners have been struggling to look like the best side in Shepherd's Bush. It was win or bust for Melville's charges yesterday, although a draw, which was there for the taking late on, would have kept them mathematically involved for another round. Once Lawrence Dallaglio and Alex King, their most influential players, pulled out with thigh and hip problems respectively, their goose was not so much cooked as incinerated.

As so often happens when French sides in general - and Stade Français in particular - dare to cross the Channel, the referee contrived to make a match of. The Parisians are confortably the most disciplined of the Tricolore contingent, to the extent that they automatically drop any player who so much as glares at an official, but that did not stop the pernickity Scot, Rob Dickson, blowing them out of the water in the early stages. For long periods, "Monsieur Le Pedantique" was the only show in town. As Connolly said with a degree of diplomacy wholly at odds with his own nationality: "We're trying to put on a spectacle and if the referee is a little on the liberal side, I have no problem with it."

The absence of Richard Pool-Jones, the former Wasps flanker who has been a regular on the side of the Stade Français scrum these last few seasons, did give Connolly a problem, in as much as the Frenchmen had no one capable of discussing matters - and arguing the odd toss - with the officials.

Pool-Jones' linguistic versatility has been worth its weight in whatever currency you care to name since his club first qualified for the élite tournament three years ago and had it not been for his back injury, the visitors may not have found themselves 9-0 down in penalties as well as points in as many minutes.

As it panned out, Dickson was equally bad for both sides. Dominguez, completely at home in devilish conditions, restored parity by the 23rd minute and then converted a typically free-spirited French try created by Christophe Dominici and Brian Lima and finished with aplomb by Franck Comba, whose performance in midfield was quite something until his kicking game went AWOL after the break. Kenny Logan, enjoying one of his better days on the marksmanship front, kept Wasps in touch, but the Stade forwards, driven along by Patrick Tabacco and the rough and ready Canadian Mike James, dominated the third quarter with their close-knit driving off scrum and line-out.

They did not, however, bargain for Pablo Lemoine's sin-binning three minutes from time. The Uruguayan had been in hot water with Dickson for most of match, but escaped serious retribution until the referee caught him ball-killing on his own 22. Suddenly, the Stade scrummage was in all sorts of strife, and Wasps used the platform to create a captain's try for Mark Denney in the left corner. When Logan bounced his conversion off a post and over, it was a case of "cue neurosis" for the French.

"Actually, I hope they go on to win the whole thing," said Melville, graciously. "When you look at the balance in their side, the pace they bring to their game and the excitement they generate, it would be great to see them take the trophy." Having claimed a really meaningful victory on the road for the first time in three Heineken campaigns, the richest club in France may well do precisely that.

Scorers: Wasps: Try Denney; Conversion Logan; Penalties Logan 7. Stade Français Try Comba; Conversion Dominguez; Penalties Dominguez 8.

Wasps: J Lewsey; S Roiser, F Waters, M Denney (capt), K Logan; R Henderson, M Wood; A Le Chevalier, P Greening (T Leota 70), W Green, A Reed (J Beardshaw 65), S Shaw, J Worsley, P Volley, P Scrivener (R Birkett 32).

Stade Français: C Dominici; B Lima (N Raffault 65), F Comba, T Lombard, R Poulain; D Dominguez, C Laussucq; S Marconnet (P Collazo 69), F Landreau, P Lemoine, D Auradou (H Chaffardon 70), M James, C Moni, P Tabacco, C Juillet (capt).

Referee: R Dickson (Scotland).

Comments