English club rugby does not get much better than this. In a pulsating match in front of over 22,000 captivated supporters at the Ricoh, Wasps twice came from behind to snatch victory over their old rivals with the very last move of the match.
With the scores tied at 25 points apiece, and the clock ticking down, Wasps sensed a final opportunity as they closed on the Leicester line. They had gone through the phases when fly half Danny Cipriani, spotted a gap and cleverly encouraged Kearnan Myall through it with another of his deft passes. The big second row needed no second invitation as he broke through two despairing tackles to slide over the line to score the match winning try. The Ricoh exploded with joy for the black and gold clad Wasps’ supporters, who were off their feet to celebrate a crucial victory and also the growing return of their team to their former powers of last season.
For Myall, this was no more than he deserved, for he had an outstanding match along with his colleague, James Gaskell, in the Wasps’ boiler room. They both have bags of experience but are largely unheralded amongst the plethora of box office names in the Wasps squad, but here they both stepped up magnificently in the absence of the injured Joe Launchbury. Not far behind was James Haskell, who played by far his best match of the season and, in tandem with Wasps’ new number 8, Nizaam Carr, the evergreen Ashley Johnson and prop Jake Cooper-Woolley, who was making his 100th appearance in the Wasps shirt, provided a muscular threat both at the breakdown and also in open play.
It is hard not to feel a little sympathy for the Leicester side, who contributed in equal measure to this absorbing and richly exciting encounter, and who, on another day, could quite easily have come away with the win themselves, a fact well recognised afterwards by the Wasps coach, Dai Young. This was a match lit up by skill, ambition and verve yet balanced at times by some very basic errors, all of which made it fascinating viewing.
Matches played at the highest level, such as this, are often decided on very fine margins. They can swing in the blink an eye and no more so than the 22nd minute of this match.
Leicester were already 10 points to the good, courtesy of a close range try by Tom Youngs and a conversion and a penalty by George Ford who, like his scrum half Ben Youngs, was looking both sharp and assured following England duty in these early exchanges, when they earned themselves two penalties in quick succession. They chose to kick both to the corner and force line outs close to the Wasps line. Bold moves, going for the jugular. A converted try here and a 17 point lead would surely have meant game over.
Leicester won good ball and pounded away at the Wasps line. Hearts were in mouths amongst the home supporters but, fortunately for them, a desperate tackle in the corner by Christian Wade prevented a score from the first penalty and a line out penalty in Wasps favour from the second came as a massive relief. Wasps broke quickly and within seconds, their scrum half Dan Robson sent Carr through the Leicester covering defence, Carr cutting a sharp angle and breaking would be tacklers on his way to the posts, narrowing the difference to a mere three points. A real game changing moment which proved to be hugely significant. Such a turnaround in just a short space of time and proving that nothing could be taken for granted in this gripping contest.
Wasps, buoyed by this escape, immediately attacked again and this time it was Robson himself, breaking from the base of a ruck just a few yards out, who squeezed his way over for a poacher’s try. In the battle of the scrum halves, whilst Ben Youngs had a decent match, he does not have the raw pace of Robson and it was the Wasps man who had the far greater influence and carried a far greater threat in this match.
Wasps had clearly decided to attack Leicester closer to the breakdown, and try and punch holes closer to it, before spreading the ball wide. This certainly proved to be an effective approach, for many teams, including Leicester here, seem to fan their defenders out across the pitch when defending against Wasps so was not to be caught short of numbers out wide. Robson executed the tactic close to perfection in setting up the first try and scoring the second. Eddie Jones take note.
A typical Elliot Daly long range exocet penalty kick boosted the Wasps tally further so that they led 17-10 at the break, seemingly unthinkable from the position in which they found themselves mid way though the first half.
Yet Leicester came again and, with their high quality group of international players, they are simply too good to lie down and feel sorry for themselves. It is not what they do in these parts.
The fightback began. A slick team move with some quick hands led to a try in the left hand corner for winger Jonah Holmes, once upon a time a reserve scrum half for Wasps, and only minutes later he scored again with a long distance interception try, anticipating a slow high loopy pass by the mercurial Wasps full back, Willie Le Roux to score at the posts, fending off Christian Wade in the process. All of a sudden Leicester ahead again 17-22. No time to draw breath.
Le Roux is something of an enigma at times for Wasps. One moment a devastating attacking force in the wide outside channels, the next a complete liability, throwing out careless or risky passes. He is proving very adept at dealing with the high ball as his confidence has returned, yet his defensive tackling leaves a little to be desired. Here he just about ended up in credit as he followed up his huge faux pas in gifting the try to Holmes to affecting a scoring pass to Daly, who burst down the left touchline in electrifying manner to score for Wasps, which took them back into the lead again. A Ford penalty then levelled the scores at 25 points each, before the real drama began.
Ultimately Wasps proved to be just a little more clinical and their victory was a reward for being that little sharper and more incisive in their attacking play. This was ultimately down to one man, the returning Danny Cipriani, who was starting his first match for 10 weeks following injury. He adds a certain calmness and organisation to the Wasps attack. He plays with his head up, still has an eye for the gap yet, arguably more importantly, he has an eye for space and then distributing with soft hands for others to run into. This is a rare talent and marks him out as that class player that he has always been, yet others have sometimes quite conveniently forgot. In this form, Cipriani can help push Wasps forward to greater things again.
As the Wasps players had a team huddle on the pitch following the final whistle, they would have reflected on a performance of huge character, determination and desire and this dramatic late victory could prove hugely significant for the rest of their season.