Wasps will find no harder nuts to crack as they make their way into the new year keeping alive their hopes of winning the league. A barely-fancied Northampton side displayed the solid rugby virtues of commitment and adventure only to lose in heroic style to the even stauncher virtues of a dead-eyed place-kicker. Six penalties from the faultless boot of the Canadian full-back, Gareth Rees, just about justified Wasps' winning bonus - but not by much.
For virtually every minute, Northampton made them fight, scoring the only try of the game. Paul Grayson, the usually reliable Saints outside- half, converted the try and kicked a couple of penalties, but he missed two drop-goal attempts and four penalties.
Northampton were dogged, their pack knocking Wasps backwards in the loose, and the back row invariably first to the breakdown. What to do with the ball when they got it was slightly more of a problem, with Wasps' tough back division producing last-ditch defence, not least Va'aiga Tuigamala, who showed on his wing how to knock a man metres back in the tackle.
The visitors simply persevered, winning loose balls relentlessly and battering forward when the backs hit a brick wall. The Saints' try came in this unglamorous, if effective, fashion. After a series of rucks near the Wasps line, Grayson tried to shuffle through and moved the ball wide when the way was blocked, then, after further rucks, Jason Chandler, the Saints' second row, was powered over.
But with Grayson failing to take all his kicking chances, the one-try margin never seemed likely to be enough. As Rees succeeded, sure enough it was whittled away, with Northampton never quite able to make the final crucial break a second time.
Northampton's director of rugby, Ian McGeechan, admitted: "It's quite simple - we didn't kick the goals. We won the rugby match but we lost the score. It's a hard lesson and we've just got to keep at it."
Despite the tension about the outcome, it was actually rather a limp occasion. No doubt Loftus Road has all the facilities, with its clear sight-lines and acres of seats. But the familiar, warm rugby atmosphere is not there. If Wasps and Harlequins cannot fill Loftus Road in a week's time, there may be questions about whether big football stadiums are the way forward.
Wasps: G Rees; S Roiser, N Greenstock, A James, V Tuigamala; A King, A Gomarsall; M Griffiths (D Molloy, 62), S Mitchell, W Green, D Cronin (R Kinsey, 62), A Reed, L Dallaglio (capt), C Sheasby, M White.
Northampton: N Beal; I Hunter, M Allen, R McNaughten, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, D Malone; M Volland, A Clarke, G Walsh, J Chandler, J Phillips, S Tatapu, T Rodber (capt, J Cassell, 86), B Poutney.
Referee: A Rowden (RFU).Reuse content