Wasps lose the battle but win the war
May 5, 2012
Wasps' Billy Vunipola leads the charge against Newcastle © Getty Images
It was a case of relief rather than jubilation at Adams Park on Saturday afternoon as London Wasps secured their Aviva Premiership status and more importantly their future.
Facing relegation and likely financial oblivion if they fell to a big defeat to fellow strugglers Newcastle, the pressure was on the hosts but you would have hardly believed their plight ahead of the game that attracted a capacity crowd of 10,516 - the club's first sell-out of the season.
Champagne and smiles were the order of the day in the car park but the club shop's declaration that 'Everything must go' was a painful reminder that all is not well at Wasps. So dire was their situation prior to this result that you may have found the actual club on the shelves alongside the cut-price shirts.
Fears about next season and beyond were allayed a little with confirmation from Wasps chairman Mark Rigby in the matchday programme that "initial terms with a consortium to take on the club" had been agreed but crucially they had only agreed to "buy a Premiership club".
Nevertheless, there were little signs of nerves among the Wasps' faithful with their hopes clearly fuelled by winger Tom Varndell's heroics a fortnight ago and the free beer supplied to the masses by one of the club's sponsors. Such was the mountain facing the Falcons - who needed to record at least a 24-point win and deny Wasps a bonus point to complete a great escape - that the atmosphere in the supporters' village was bordering on a party. Stadium announcers hyped up the importance of "the biggest game in Wasps' history" and the "do-or-die" nature of the contest but it could not dent the confidence of fans who have become all too used to winning big games in the past decade - a fact underlined by numerous Premiership titles and Heineken Cup.
'Once a Wasp, always a Wasp' is very much part of the club's culture and the presence of some names from past and present - including the club's apparent financial saviour Ken Moss - underlined the importance of the game. Jokes and laughter filled the air as fans made their way into the stadium knowing that even a narrow defeat would be enough but that confidence from fans young and old arguably emanated from their rivals' chances rather than their own side's ability to get the job done.
There was further reason for hope when the normally faultless Falcons playmaker Jimmy Gopperth sent his first kick wide of the posts - an act greeted with looks of disbelief among both sets of fans - but nerves were evident on both sides with Wasps fly-half Nick Robinson sending his first effort wide of the posts. Given the stakes, there were surprisingly few errors but perhaps because no-one appeared prepared to gamble - not even a Falcons side up against it and cheered on by a few hundred loyal fans hopeful of witnessing a great escape.
Gopperth threatened to blow the game wide open with a clever chip and chase midway through the first half but the bounce of the ball did not go his way. But Wasps also struggled to get a foothold in the game with the dancing feet of wingers Christian Wade and Richard Haughton offering just glimpses of their game-breaking ability. However, that was all that was needed to put Wasps in control and settle the nerves of the majority of the crowd. Haughton's electric pace and Robinson's expert delivery put Wade in for a score in the corner and suddenly the party-atmosphere returned. Robinson's conversion cemented their advantage and the fans' faith in their side looked well-placed as the sides headed to the tunnel.
Given the intensity of the occasion, it was a little surprising that we had to wait until the second half for tempers to boil over. The Falcons raised their game and with it the hopes and voices of their fans. A yellow card for Wasps prop Ben Broster was dismissed by the home fans in a hail of abuse for referee Wayne Barnes but they were not so vociferous as first James Fitzpatrick forced his way over for the Falcons and then Robinson fluffed his lines once more.
The familiar rallying cry of 'Wasps! Wasps! Wasps!" rang around the stadium and it seemed to help as they survived the loss of Broster without further scoreboard pain. In sight of safety both on and off the field, the crowd dug as deep as their side who by now were being stretched to breaking point under increasing pressure from the Falcons.
A crunching hit from Falcons replacement Tai Tu'ifua raised the temperatures once again and the nail-biting ceased temporarily in favour of another hail of abuse. But there was no end to the tension with a desperately close TMO decision denying Tim Swinson and the Falcons a score that you sensed could have served as the springboard to something special.
Wasps doubled their defensive efforts to keep the Falcons at bay but to their credit their visitors refused to give up on the game. A try from scrum-half Peter Stringer gave them the lead and silenced the stadium. The win was sealed courtesy of Gopperth's boot but never has a victory been greeted or celebrated with such apathy.
Of course, such are the intricacies of the English club structure, defeat in their relegation scrap may not spell the end of the Falcons' stay in the Premiership. Should the side that claims the Championship title not meet the Premiership entry criteria then they may be saved but that will not mask the shortcomings of this term.
It said a lot for Wasps' season that even their successful bid for Premiership survival and a financial lifeline fell a little flat. A hollow victory - although it wasn't a victory. But it was good enough for Wasps' director of rugby Dai Young who, having reaffirmed his commitment to the club, said: "We lost the battle but won the war."
The Wasps fans left in limbo by a strange result filed out of the stadium and past the club shop, that will now gleefully re-stock for next year, where a banner adorning the window spells out the future. 'New chapter. New challenge. Forever Wasps.'
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.