Wasps' Springbok-style title

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The Independent Online
There are few obvious similarities between the palatial opulence of Ellis Park in downtown Johannesburg and the tarted-up, three-bed semi known as Franklins Gardens, home to the Saints of Northampton. Yet it was easy on Saturday to enter the realm of total recall and summon from the memory bank images of glorious triumph on the high veldt in June, 1995.

Remember the World Cup-winning Springboks and their cast iron, copper- bottomed, none-shall-pass defence? The withering accuracy of Joel Stransky's right boot, the tackling of Japie Mulder, the selfless devotion of Ruben Kruger, the leadership of Francois Pienaar? Well, in their own small way, Wasps managed a pretty neat impersonation of that irresistible South African blend in securing the 1997 Courage league title. Rory Bremner would have been proud of them.

There was even a president there to watch Lawrence Dallaglio and his side tie things up a week early with an understandably edgy 26-15 victory over the mid-table Midlanders. John Richardson of the Rugby Football Union is no Nelson Mandela, but he has this much in common: there are those on the Cliff Brittle wing of the governing body who would happily ship their figurehead out to Robben Island for a couple of decades. Happily for the sanity of rugby folk the length and breadth of Britain, the latest political spat over the RFU's broadcasting deal with BSkyB failed to register on anything other than the Boredom Scale. It remained Wasps' day and rightly so.

Admittedly, the Bokke parallel requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but it is not too strongly drawn when you consider how and why the blue- collar artisans of north London became champions of England for the second time. Like Pienaar, Dallaglio led magnificently from the blind-side flank, perhaps the optimum position for a captain; like Mulder, Rob Henderson tackled with such hostility in midfield that powerful and imaginative opponents spent far longer than usual under lock and key. As with Kruger, Buster White and Matt Greenwood gave everything of themselves in the "no pain, no gain" areas and then found the spirit to contribute that little bit more; and like Stransky, Gareth Rees kicked virtually every goal that mattered.

Canada's finest did the necessary once again to snuff out Northampton, who huffed and puffed with sufficient enthusiasm to blow the Gardens clean off their foundations but failed miserably to strike the all-important balance between lungpower and brainpower. Sixteen points with the boot, an intelligent cut-out pass to whip Shane Roiser over for a first-half try plus a clever little toe-poke, hand-flip routine to usher Kenny Logan in for the injury-time coup de grace? A decisive contribution in anyone's lingo.

"It wasn't in the grand style, but we've won every which way this season and that has been our secret," beamed Rees, chuckling smugly to himself at the memory of all the sizeist jokes aimed at his waistline during the last eight months. "Ask any full-back and he'll tell you how reassuring it is to have complete faith in the defensive line in front of him. I've had that faith this season and it's a real luxury, one I haven't always been used to down the years. It gives you such confidence, a total belief that you will win no matter how hairy things might get. More than anything else, that is the sign of a championship side."

As so often during the campaign, Wasps had to survive long spells of possession famine as the Saints forwards, a rejuvenated Martin Bayfield in the box seat, hoovered up at line-out, ruck and maul. Yet the Londoners were so secure defensively that they looked considerably more dangerous without the ball than Northampton did with it; the absence of Paul Grayson and the early departure of Gregor Townsend left the home side bereft of vision.

No such problems for Wasps. When Andy Reed or, more often, Dallaglio managed to sneak a smidgeon of line-out ball, Alex King squeezed every last ounce of value from it: a dinky chip here, a raking left-footer there, a floated pass into space somewhere else. As Rees was happy to agree afterwards, his young clubmate and rival stand-off has the wherewithal to hit the heights.

"Alex has all the tools," he said. "He's been pushed quickly, but his tactical awareness has really come on and although he doesn't kick regularly, I've no real doubt that he can be a top-class operator in that area, too. As for his tackling, he doesn't miss a trick. People forget that outside- halves have a huge defensive role to perform but you don't have to tell Alex to knock 'em down. He just does it."

For all King's commitment at the barricades as the Saints' raiding party swept forward with ever-mounting vigour, the gallantry awards went elsewhere. Wasps made an astonishing 140 tackles on Saturday and Greenwood, unsung and unrivalled in equal measure, probably accounted for three-fifths of them. His try-saving hit on the mightily impressive Matt Allen just past the hour was right out of the Alamo Book of Bravery and just about matched Reed's desperate wrap-up on Dave Merlin a few seconds previously. "Fantastic efforts, both of them," said Rob Smith, the coach, with every justification.

For Dallaglio, it was the culmination of an 18-month captaincy tenure that began in an atmosphere bordering on the purgatorial before moving swiftly up the rocky mountainside towards seventh heaven. Well, almost the culmination. In the grand tradition of loyal Wasps, he plans to give those nice Harlequins from the other side of the Thames a decent seeing- to in this weekend's finale.

"If they think we're not interested because we've won the title, they can think again," said the man who looks every inch an England captain to everyone bar Jack Rowell. "We've lost to them once this season and it wouldn't be the mark of champions to go down twice to anyone. The desire will be there at The Stoop because that is the way things are at this club; success may breed contempt and complacency elsewhere but it won't here. That pride in performance has made it a privilege to captain this side and if they want me to lead them again next season, I'm up for it."

Dallaglio was so "up" on Saturday evening that he was in danger of colliding with the helicopter carrying Chris Wright, one very happy Wasps owner, back to London. It will suit the Lions management if their kingpin loose forward reaches the same altitude in South Africa this summer.

Northampton: Penalties Hepher 5. Wasps: Tries Roiser, Logan; Conversions Rees 2; Penalties Rees 4.

Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, G Townsend (C Moir, 25), M Allen, H Thorneycroft; A Hepher, M Dawson (capt); M Volland, A Clarke, M Stewart, J Phillips, M Bayfield, S Foale, D Merlin, J Cassell.

Wasps: G Rees; S Roiser, N Greenstock, R Henderson, K Logan; A King (J Ufton, 77), M Wood; D Molloy, S Mitchell, W Green, M Greenwood, A Reed (D Cronin, 61), L Dallaglio (capt), C Sheasby, M White.

Referee: G Hughes (Manchester).