WASPS, WITH Alex King restored to regal status on the grand stage, finally filled their cupboard with an emphatic victory over Newcastle at Twickenham to keep the Tetley's Bitter Cup in London, albeit at a different address.
Last season Wasps were dissected by Saracens in the final when Michael Lynagh, the great Australian, ran the show. Yesterday King, if not quite as influential as Lynagh, made a vital contribution, setting Wasps on their way with a brilliant try in the 27th minute. It was conclusive proof of the rehabilitation that has seen the stand-off travel from star to total eclipse in New Zealand and now back to the England squad. "Losing last year was a horrible feeling," King said. "It's amazing what can happen in the space of a year." This victory for Wasps was overdue. To lose one cup final is bad enough but to lose four smacked of stage fright.
King wasn't 100 per cent fit last season and it showed. At 24, hardly a mature age for an international stand-off, King had been lapped by Jonny Wilkinson but this was one Twickenham occasion where the precocious 19- year-old came off second best.
Nothing should detract from Wasps deservedly lifting the cup at their fifth attempt but in a match which was as far short of being a classic as the ground was from full capacity, there were a few mitigating factors behind a Newcastle performance which did not amount to a full frontal assault.
One of the consequences of the unprofessional structure of the English Premiership is that Newcastle went into the final (this occasion should be the season's finale) with unfinished business. The cup final was sandwiched between two midweek league matches. Wasps had already qualified for Europe, Newcastle have not and, as the treasurers see the European cup as a vintage claret and the national knockout cup more as a knees-up in a beer garden, it would be surprising if the Falcons were not distracted, if only slightly.
They also badly missed the experience of Rob Andrew. Apart from a couple of occasions, the Falcons, unimaginative and guileless, failed to break a Wasps defence that was wholly committed and aggressive. "We made too many mistakes, which meant that our younger players were always chasing the game," Andrew, a former Wasp, said.
By contrast, everything fell into place for Wasps. Gareth Rees, who first played here in a cup final as an 18-year-old Harrow schoolboy, was supposed to be on the bench yesterday with Josh Lewsey at full-back, but a doubt about Kenny Logan meant that the Canadian, who will be 32 next month, played a full part, as did Lewsey. Wasps, thanks to two penalties from Rees, were leading 6-3 when King left the Falcons for dead. From a scrum, with Mark Denney making a decoy run, King burst through the midfield and his kick ahead was beautifully judged. As the ball rolled behind the posts, King got there just ahead of Gary Armstrong.
Wasps led 16-6 at half time, Newcastle's only response being two penalties from Wilkinson. Five minutes into the second half summed up Newcastle's day. Wilkinson, not for the first time going for too much length on a kick to touch, kicked the ball dead from a penalty and instead of having a line-out near the Wasps line, the Falcons found themselves on the end of King's left-footed drop-goal: 19-6.
An indication of the tightness of the marking then ensued. In the 49th minute Va'aiga Tuigamala who, from the outset, had shown some fantastic skills, intercepted a pass from Simon Shaw inside the Newcastle 22 which was meant for Lawrence Dallaglio, who was lurking on the right wing. Tuigamala had about 80 yards to go. He was caught by Lewsey three yards short. "When I saw the interception I thought `Oh God here we go'," Lewsey said. "If Tuigamala has one weakness it is that his legs are going a bit and he was carrying a few knocks."
Suddenly interceptions became not only highly fashionable but personal. In the 79th minute Tuigamala's attempted pass to Stuart Legg on his own 22 was taken instead by Lewsey, who sprinted behind the posts, kissing the ball before planting it down for the decisive score.
It was not, however, the final act. In the 81st minute a pass from Lewsey was intercepted by, yes, you've guessed it, Tuigamala who this time, with less distance to travel, made it safely across the line. Such is Tuigamala's value to the Falcons that he played on in the second half with a dislocated shoulder.
King, despite his contribution, was not man of the match. That honour went to the Wasps flanker Joe Worsley, one of the unsung heroes in a redoubtable pack. The Newcastle eight have built a deserved reputation but they met their match yesterday, not least in the extraordinary shape of the Wasps hooker Trevor Leota. Although the Samoan went off for repairs to a mouth injury, he returned to put in some of the mightiest tackles in a game which might have lacked finesse and skill but never lacked courage. Or Tetley's.
Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor (T Underwood, 40), M Shaw, T May, V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong (capt); G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter (I Peel, 70), G Archer, D Weir, P Walton (J Cartmell, 40), R Beattie, R Arnold.
Wasps: G Rees; J Lewsey, F Waters, M Denney (R Henderson, 66), P Sampson (K Logan, 47); A King, A Gomarsall (M Friday, 49); D Molloy, T Leota, W Green, M Weedon (capt), S Shaw, L Dallaglio, P Scrivener, J Worsley.
Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).
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