Wednesday, 21 January 2015

European Cup Review - Harlequins 3 - 23 Wasps

Talk about your rollercoaster rides.  Sure, you get them every now and again within individual games, but Wasps fans have been on one of the longest big dippers around.  From the absolute summit of European championships and Premiership titles, they’ve plummeted through relegation scraps and administration near-misses, not to mention the upheaval of their very home in north London.  But finally – and only whisper it – it looks like they might be on the climb again.


A better-than-expected welcome to Coventry has boosted attendances and displays, and with quality players like Nathan Hughes, James Haskell and Christian Wade all playing top-class rugby, the side is not only knocking on the door for the Premiership playoffs, but they’re in with a sniff of European qualification, too.  They faced Harlequins at the Stoop on Saturday, the side in control of Pool Two, knowing that a win would turn what looked like a canter for their ex-neighbours into a three-horse race.


We thought the game might get off to a bang, and Tom Williams ensured it did just that – clotheslining Alapati Leiua as the big centre rushed onto an intelligent kick from the evergreen Andy Goode.  The visiting fans wanted a card to be shown in just the third minute, and understandably so since it looked horrendous on replay.  But, in fairness to Williams, it looked as if he was either reaching for the ball or just instinctively sticking an arm out rather than anything sinister, and so Nigel Owen’s decision to keep his cards in his pocket was probably justified – but Andy Goode made sure the mistake didn’t go unpunished, slotting the first three points of the afternoon.


Quins, though, struck back hard, wanting to replicate the unstoppable high-tempo and enterprising game that had dismantled the Leicester Tigers the previous week.  Nick Easter and Chris Robshaw were both beginning to generate some momentum for the hosts with smart carries and offloads around the fringes, but then two errors from their lynchpins handed a very firm advantage – and effectively the game – to Wasps.


Firstly, Danny Care took a quick tap from a quick penalty and, although he did well initially to wriggle into some space, his speculative pass was to nobody – nobody, that is, aside from the lurking Christian Wade, who scooped the ball up and scampered over from 75 metres.  If there’s one person you don’t want to see picking off your loose pass, it’s that man.  Goode nudged over the conversion and the visitors were suddenly 10 – nil to the good.


The hosts were reeling, and a strikeback felt inevitable, but then Mike Brown hoofed a clearance out on the full and gave Wasps a rare attacking platform.  They needed no second invitation.  With ruthless efficiency, they crashed the ball up in the middle through Leiua and James Haskell and, after just a couple of phases, Joe Simpson spotted a gap between the ruck and Will Collier and scampered through for his side’s second try. Similar to Wade...if there’s one man you don’t want to leave a gap by the fringes for, it’s Simpson.  The imperious Goode again made no mistake from the tee and even the most optimistic Quins fan began to appreciate it would be a hell of a comeback to drag their way back into things from here.


Inevitably, a comeback of sorts was mounted, and the Quins offloading game began to get going, with Robshaw again prominent and young Jack Clifford continuing to impress.  It also looked as if the tide had turned when Nathan Hughes – in his only blemish all game – was sent to the naughty boy stool in the 29th minute as a result of persistent defending by his side.  But, try as they might, Wasps were swarming every carrier and preventing the offload, as well as contesting every breakdown to ensure that the Quins game simply could not stutter into gear.  Ashley Johnson was impressing with several ‘bear-hug’ tackles that engulfed the hosts runners, and the commentator’s nightmare duo of Haskell and Gaskell were slowing the ball down every time it went to deck.  Somehow, Quins went into the break without a point to their name.  17 – 0.


Conor O’Shea would have told his men to start the second half like men possessed, but Wasps fly half Andy Goode took the sting out of their tail (I’m sorry, I’ve just realised I may have over-done the Wasps puns) with another well-struck penalty.  Quins began to get desperate, turning down 3-pointers in search of greater reward – but time and again they were knocked back, and fly half Ben Botica eventually had to settle for three points of the tee just to get his side on the board.  Unbelievably, that was to be their only return of the game.


Elliot Daly soon cancelled out Botica’s effort with a mammoth penalty from inside his own half, and then the rearguard action from the Wasps defence did the rest of the damage.  Despite the introduction of Nick Evans following injury and the dangerous Charlie Walker, the hosts simply could not fight their way through a defensive line dominated by the likes of Hughes and Leuia and superbly marshalled by the magnificent Haskell.  The final whistle went, and the now-Coventry-based Wasps had achieved a famous victory.


Keep an eye out for this side.  They’ve not just moved up the country but, under Dai Young, they’re moving up the rugby ladder, too.

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