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The spirit of Christmas overflowed into this Madejski Stadium clash as London Irish turned out to be the team suffering from a festive hangover as they gifted London Wasps a 17 point lead in the opening 30 minutes. Thereafter, despite the best efforts of the Exiles they could not catch an outstanding Wasps team.
A club record crowd of 20,318 that filled the magnificent Reading stadium to health and safety capacity limits imposed for the match, witnessed an entertaining game between the teams lying second and third in the Zurich Premiership.
Irish had started in lively fashion but were soon committing errors that the visitors were quick to capitalise on throughout the eighty minutes. The first happened in the second minute, Irish were defending inside their 22 when Darren Edwards sent a pass to Bob Casey who was clearly not expecting the ball to come anywhere near him. He knocked on and Wasps flanker Richard Birkett thought Father Christmas had come again in the space of three days as he picked up “the pass” and drove over the Irish goal line for a try. Alex King had no trouble with the conversion.
Three minutes later Irish had a chance to claw back three points when they were awarded a penalty for offside. Matt Cannon, temporarily on as a blood replacement for Mark Mapletoft, struck the ball well but it drifted wide. There followed a period of attack and counter-attack as both teams pressed to secure a crucial advantage. The visitors were proving to be the stronger as they forced Irish to play in their half. A rare visit to the Wasps half won another penalty for the Exiles, however, Mapletoft’s kick from 32 metres missed the target.
The first quarter had just ended when Irish launched an attack from inside their half. Mapletoft chipped ahead to set Michael Horak off with only one defender to beat, however referee Chris White judged Horak to be offside. King kicked the resulting penalty from 40 metres for a score of 10-0 to the visitors.
Minutes later King was at the heart of the action again as he sent Paul Volley clear. The powerful back row was too strong for the home midfield defence as he brushed aside an attempted tackle before passing to Tom Voyce who raced through for a try. Once again King converted.
Irish looked like finishing the half scoreless until Wasps were penalised on the stroke of half-time for coming into a ruck from the side. This time Mapletoft’s kick went safely between the uprights for a half-time score of 3-17.
The half-time discussion in the Irish changing room obviously had an impact as the home side came out and dominated the third quarter. The defending was much sharper and Wasps struggled to secure any quality possession with which to launch their obvious attacking talents.
Frustration began to take its toll and the visitors suffered at the hands of the referee who penalised them repeatedly. Mapletoft was able to kick two penalties to reduce the deficit to eight points. In the 63rd minute he was on hand to take a long pass from Darren Edwards and drop a delightful goal from 35 metres that narrowed the gap to five points.
The boost to the home side’s confidence was short-lived as King nullified the benefit of the drop goal with a penalty one minute later. This had the effect of galvanising Wasps. They stifled all the attacking initiatives that Irish could mount and always threatened on the counter attack.
Any chance of an Irish victory vanished in the 74th minute. A sustained attack by Wasps down the right was defended brilliantly by Irish. Drive after drive by the visiting forwards was repulsed, however the home defence was sucked into close range defening, leaving inevitable gaps out left. Eventually the ball was whisked out left to Mark Van Gisbergen who touched down unchallenged for his team’s third try. King’s conversion took Wasps’ lead to an uncatchable 15 points.
Showing determination and courage Irish refused to give up. In the 78th minute the Exiles scored a consolation try when following another clean lineout take on the left, Edwards passed to Mapletoft who sent a beautifully flighted, long pass to Horak whose line took him clean between two defenders to score just right of the posts. Mapletoft converted to leave the score at 19-27.
The visitors were not finished however. In the final minute of normal time King passed to replacement centre, Ayoola Erinle in midfield and he powered though from 30 metres to score under the posts. King’s fourth conversion left the final score 19-34.
Speaking after the game London Irish’s head coach, Gary Gold praised the spirit his team showed especially in the second half. “We want to measure ourselves against the best and Wasps in my opinion are the best regional team anywhere in the world at present.
“That was the most physical game we have played all season, the fact that we lost our entire back row in the course of the game shows how tough it was out there.”
During the half-time interval the Webb Ellis Cup was paraded around the bowl of the stadium by Lawrence Dallaglio and Stuart Abbott, both members of England’s World Cup winning team, to a rapturous reception from the record crowd.
Scorers: London Irish: Try: Horak (78min); Conversion: Mapletoft. Drop Goal: Mapletoft (63). Penalty goals: Mapletoft 3 (40, 45, 56). London Wasps: Tries: Birkett (2), Voyce (28), Van Gisbergen (74), Erinle (80). Conversions: King 4. Penalty goals: King 2 (23, 64).
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 0-7, 0-10, 0-17, 3-17 (half-time) 6-17, 9-17, 12-17, 12-20, 12-27, 19-27, 19-34.
London Irish: M Horak, P Sackey, G Appleford, R Hoadley (rep: M Cannon, 68), J Bishop, M Mapletoft (rep: M Cannon 2-8), D Edwards, N Hatley, N Drotske, R Hardwick, R Strudwick (Captain), B Casey, P Gustard (rep: K Roche, 50), D Danaher (rep: P Murphy, 27), C Sheasby (rep: A Flavin, 56).
London Wasps: M Van Gisbergen, J Lewsey, F Waters, M Denney (rep: A Erinle, 65), T Voyce, A King, P Richards (rep: P Richards, 61), C Dowd (Captain), P Greening (rep: T Leota, 61), W Green (rep: T Payne, 61), S Shaw, R Birkett (rep: M Purdy, 52), P Volley (rep: I Clarke, 2-15), J O’Connor (rep: I Clarke, 61), J Worsley.
Referee: C White (RFU)