Wasps fight back to keep their crown

12th Nov 2007, 10:37


Left for dead: Paul Sackey streaks away from the Munster defence

Left for dead: Paul Sackey streaks away from the Munster defence

London Wasps started the defence of their Heineken Cup crown in the best possible fashion on Saturday, fighting back from 13-23 down to clinch a magnificent game 24-23 against Munster at Conventry's Ricoh Arena.

London Wasps started the defence of their Heineken Cup crown in the best possible fashion on Saturday, fighting back from 13-23 down to clinch a magnificent game 24-23 against Munster at Conventry's Ricoh Arena.

This was vintage Heineken Cup rugby. Munster called upon the spirits of days gone by to guide them in what was a titanic battle. But in Wasps they encountered a side determined to defend their crown in style.

The popular notion is that you can't win the Heineken Cup on the first two weekends but you can certainly lose it. With Munster conjuring some sublime rugby at times, Wasps were pushed to the brink as their defence creaked and bent but never fully crumbled.

Twice Wasps teetered on the brink, staring the European abyss in the eye, and twice they hit back in emphatic fashion to claim one of the great victories. The first revival was born out of necessity, as at that stage they were looking down the barrel.

Munster came out with all guns blazing as Ronan O'Gara came to the fore and controlled the game with aplomb. His cultured boot guided his side around the field with a sense of authority. After knocking over two penalties, to Danny Cipriani's sole effort, it was O'Gara who then found the key to the Wasps defence and unlocked it.

It was he who took the ball behind his back and still managed to pull the Wasps rush defence onto him before sending the industrious Lifeimi Mafi through a gaping hole. It was Mafi's centre partner, Rua Tipoki, playing in his first Heineken Cup match who was on hand to round off a fine opening score. With O'Gara slotting the conversion Munster had opened a ten-point lead and were looking the dominant side.

Wasps are not defending champions for no reason and they were soon stirred from their slumber by the zest of Cipriani. It was his dancing run and pass to Sackey that had seemed to bring Wasps right back into it, only for Malcolm Changleng to call them back for a marginally forward pass.

Not to be denied, Cipriani then slotted his second penalty on the half-hour mark before having the luxury of a conversion under the posts a minute later. Simon Shaw plucked the re-start from the night sky and set a solid platform. A Eoin Reddan box kick then caused all sorts of problems for Anthony Horgan who ended up letting the ball bounce, a mistake that cost his side seven points. The ever-alert Riki Flutey swooped on the lose ball and raced away to score.

With the scores all level it was then Wasps who began to turn the screw. Munster were on the ropes heading towards half time as Wasps gave them a thorough examination in defence. But try as they did the champions could not crack a resolute wall of red that swarmed over them at every chance.

Then came the fairytale moment of the game. Half-time was imminent and Munster had weathered the Wasps storm. It was then their turn to go on the offensive, and to some effect too. O'Gara pulled the rush defence onto him before sliding a delightful kick in behind for the onrushing Shaun Payne. For Payne it was a magical moment, having come out of retirement for this, his fiftieth Heineken Cup cap, he had given Munster an invaluable lead on the stroke of half-time.

Having witnessed a first half full of so much passion and heart it was almost expecting too much for a repeat dose, but that is exactly what we got. More, in fact.

Again Munster stretched their lead out to ten points, although Wasps were lucky it was not more. Brian Carney was clearly obstructed with the ball begging to be touched down in-goal. As it was Fraser Waters escaped with a slap on the wrist and three points against his side, making it 13-23.

The second Wasps revival was not as rapid but just as effective. Cipriani got the ball rolling with two penalties in three minutes, the second a result of Marcus Horan's offside that earned him a spell in the sin-bin.

Trailing by four points, with twenty minutes left, Wasps struck the decisive blow. A sweeping sixty-metre move, which started from a quick free kick, was rounded off by George Skivington who showed a deft step to beat Mafi before galloping over to a thunderous roar.

As far as the scoring went that was it, but as a game it had so much left to offer. Wasps sensed blood and went for the jugular, but Munster, as we have come to expect, dug deep and repelled several raids into their half.

Having survived a torrid spell it was then the turn of the men from Limerick to launch a last-ditch attempt at rescuing the game. Try as they might it was a bridge too far, as Wasps, inspired by James Haskell, hung on for dear life and their very Heineken existence.

It was billed as the game of the weekend and it didn't fail to deliver. Wasps have survived the first of six telling games, while Munster will not be altogether disappointed with a losing bonus point. They are far from out of the pool but now face five games where nothing less than wins will suffice.

Man of the match: For Munster Ronan O'Gara was back to his best, aided by his little sidekick Peter Stringer. Up front they had a star in Alan Quinlan, but it was not enough. Wasps were guided superbly by Danny Cipriani and Riki Flutey but James Haskell was the heart and soul of this display. Once again the explosive flanker proved why he is so highly-rated, producing an all action display.

The scorers:

For Wasps:
Flutey, Skivington
Con: Cipriani
Pens: Cipriani 4

For Munster:
Tipoki, Payne
Cons: O'Gara 2
Pens: O'Gara 3

Yellow card: Horan (Munster, 55, killing the ball)

Wasps: 15 Mark van Gisbergen, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Fraser Waters, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Tom Voyce, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Lawrence Dallaglio (c), 7 Tom Rees, 6 James Haskell, 5 George Skivington, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Nick Adams, 2 Raphaël Ibanez, 1 Tim Payne.
Replacements: 16 Joe Ward, 17 Michael Holford, 18 Richard Birkett, 19 John Hart, 20 Simon Amor, 21 Rob Hoadley, 22 Dan Leo.

Munster: 15 Shaun Payne, 14 Brian Carney, 13 Rua Tipoki, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Anthony Horgan, 10 Ronan O'Gara (c), 9 Peter Stringer, 8 Dennis Leamy, 7 David Wallace, 6 Alan Quinlan, 5 Mick O'Driscoll, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Jerry Flannery, 1 Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16 Frankie Sheahan, 17 Tony Buckley, 18 Anthony Foley, 19 Jake Paringatai, 20 Thomas O'Leary, 21 Paul Warwick, 22 Ian Dowling.

Referee: Malcolm Changleng (Scotland)