Wasps vs Exeter Chiefs match report: Jimmy Gopperth kicks for European Champions Cup semi-finals in thriller

Wasps 25 Exeter 24: Fly-half lands last-minute conversion to complete incredible Wasps comeback

Hugh Godwin
Ricoh Arena
Saturday 09 April 2016 18:59
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Fly-half Jimmy Gopperth kept his nerve to kick the crucial points
Fly-half Jimmy Gopperth kept his nerve to kick the crucial points

There is no team in Europe you would back with greater confidence than Wasps to score a try through the backs right now, and their heavy investment in All Blacks stars Charles Piutau and Frank Halai this season paid off with a try of stunning drama by full-back Piutau six seconds before full-time, converted thrillingly from the touchline for the win by another New Zealander, the fly-half Jimmy Gopperth.

Exeter held a 13-point lead going into the final quarter, having scored three tries including two in the first half by Thomas Waldrom to take the amazingly prolific No.8’s total for the season to 19, and 36 in 50 appearances for the Chiefs since he moved from Leicester in summer 2014.

But Halai’s try on 65 minutes, a fine team effort of quality handling begun by Elliot Daly’s brave and pacy counter-attack from behind the Wasps posts, was converted by Gopperth to trim Exeter’s advantage to 24-18.

It appeared Wasps’ chance had gone when they had three attacks close to the Exeter goalline held up in a frantic five-minute sequence. Instead there was time for a last line-out from which the initial maul was split, but the men in black recycled possession with guts and style. Halai ran a clever decoy and Gopperth and England centre Daly combined to send the scorer careering unstoppably past a three or four desperate Exeter defenders.

Twice the European Cup champions (and the last English winners, in 2007) before they endured a long lean run, Wasps have now reached their first semi-final in the competition for nine years – another all-English tie in Reading in a fortnight’s time against the winners of Saturday evening’s quarter-final between Saracens and Northampton.

“Those are the moments you’ve got to nail, and I’ve never had one as big as this,” said Gopperth, the last-kick hero who was formerly with Leinster and Newcastle. “We know we’re a good attacking team, we just had to get the opportunities.”

Rob Baxter, the Exeter head coach, said: “There are a few individual mistakes the players and I could be hung up about, but if that last kick had missed, we’d have been the ones over the moon. Both teams were justified in winning the game, and we’ve made a good Wasps team play very well to beat us.”

Exeter had scraped through from their European pool whereas Wasps had seen off the luminaries of Toulon, Leinster and Bath.

That form and Wasps’s 10 wins in their last 11 matches before this looked like bunk, though, when Exeter impressively reprised the irresistible driving maul they had used to hammer Wasps 41-27, in the league meeting here in December and Waldrom – a hat-trick scorer that day – powered over from a line-out after 31 minutes, in reply to two penalties by Gopperth.

Waldrom’s second try five minutes later was a 30-metre run topped off by a belly-flopping slide after he had caught a wayward pass from Bradley Davies.

Charles Piutau gave Wasps an invaluable leg up three minutes after half-time, seizing on Dan Robson’s neat grubber kick after scrum-half Robson had popped Piutau's older brother Siale through a gap.

But replacement prop Harry Williams forced Exeter’s third try over after 48 minutes, and fly-half Gareth Steenson’s third conversion and a penalty to follow had the Chiefs looking good at 24-11.

Wasps kept coming and although the errors were piling up, a maul pulled down in the Exeter 22 with four minutes to go was the prelude to the grandstand finish, when several of the home players could not bear to watch Gopperth’s conversion. The 33-year-old No.10 was punching the air even before his kick, straight and true from wide on the right, reached the posts.

Wasps' captain James Haskell, who had been replaced by Thomas Young among a number of substitutions that invigorated his team, said: “I had my coat over my face but I had to watch the kick. I’m the last one standing of the old set of Wasps boys, and creating memories with this team is what it’s all about. It’s a wake-up call, we can’t leave things down to the wire.”

Wasps: C Piutau; C Wade, E Daly, S Piutau, F Halai; J Gopperth, D Robson; M Mullan (S McIntyre 60), C Festuccia (A Johnson 51), J Cooper-Woolley, J Launchbury, K Myall (B Davies 22), J Haskell (capt, T Young 60), G Smith, N Hughes.

Tries: C Piutau 2, Halai; Cons: Gopperth 2; Pens: Gopperth 2.

Exeter Chiefs: L Turner; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten (M Campagnaro 71), O Woodburn; G Steenson (capt), W Chudley; B Moon (A Hepburn 60), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 67), M Low (H Williams 22), M Lees (D Welch 57), G Parling, D Armand, J Salvi (D Ewers 59), T Waldrom.

Tries: Waldrom 2, Williams; Cons: Steenson 3; Pen: Steenson.

Referee: R Poite (France).

Official attendance: 23,866

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