Matt Mullan and Wasps burst into life to beat Northampton at the last

Michael Aylwin
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Jimmy Gopperth, who scored Wasps’ winning conversion in the last minute, is tackled by Northampton’s George North.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Nigel French/PA</span>
Jimmy Gopperth, who scored Wasps’ winning conversion in the last minute, is tackled by Northampton’s George North. Photograph: Nigel French/PA

It had seemed as if the Premiership’s longest unbeaten home run was about to be reset. It had seemed, just as the season reaches its climax, that Wasps’ wobbles were to be confirmed as fully set in. But with the last play of the game, after a 10-minute-long siege, Matt Mullan was driven over for a try whose conversion won the game 32-30. It also netted a bonus point, keeping them top of the table by five points.

Whether they can hope to win the whole thing with defence like theirs remains unlikely, but that attack of theirs is spectacular. At times in the second half they were unplayable, but their first half was almost as chaotic as their 32-17 defeat to Leinster had been in Dublin the week before. Northampton walk away with two bonus points themselves, moving them level on points with Harlequins in the race for the top six. They outscored Wasps five tries to four, but they could not cope with the varying depths of Wasps’ attacking runners, whose threat remains unmatched in this league.

After the indignities suffered in Dublin, they had rearranged their backline and rested James Haskell, with Nathan Hughes on the bench. They are also suffering something of a run on tighthead props, with Paul Doran Jones called up from Gloucester to sit on the bench. Whatever the circumstances, the net result in that first half was not reassuring. Wasps carried on where they had left off in Dublin, nervy and error-prone.

Willie le Roux, cardinal sinner last week and now installed at full-back, sent one early kick out on the full, from which Northampton capitalised with the game’s first penalty, before Jimmy Gopperth threw a horrible pass into the arms of Ben Foden, who scored the first try.

Northampton’s form has been gradually improving lately, albeit from a low base. The top four is surely beyond them now, but there is much still to play for in the shape of qualification for Europe. For some, there is also the prospect of a tour to New Zealand. Courtney Lawes is one making a bold play for that. A couple of his tackles on his England mate, Joe Launchbury, seemed particularly pointed, and his carrying was integral to the Saints’ efforts.

But for all the thunder of Northampton up front, Wasps retain the ability to cut the unwary to pieces. Gopperth sent Elliot Daly on a beautiful line through Northampton’s midfield to keep the home side in the game. Northampton came again, their carries more punishing, and Alex Waller was over in the corner. Stephen Myler could land none of the conversions of Saints’ first-half tries, so a couple of Gopperth penalties were enough to level up the scores on the half-hour, before Northampton scored their third just before the break.

Ahsee Tuala scorched clear down the right, Lawes punched further into the heart of Wasps’ defence, before Myler and Harry Mallinder worked George North into the corner. Three tries to one up at the break, but Northampton’s lead was a mere five points.

Then Wasps burst into the second half, as if the previous three halves of rugby had been little more than a bad dream. They had levelled the try ledger within 12 minutes of the restart and imposed a seven-point lead. In that time, they had torn the Saints open enough times to make it feel more comprehensive than that.

Ashley Johnson was the first to charged clean through, precipitating a flurry of passes among some superb supporting lines, then the ball went right to Wade. Five defenders confronted him, and the moment he chipped the ball wickedly over the top of them, we knew it was a try. Next it was Daly haring through, off an inside ball from Le Roux, and from the scrum established scrum Joe Simpson scored in the corner.

The attack transformed but the defence remained vulnerable, as it has all season. Northampton hammered at their line round the hour and scored from the scrum all too easily, straight hands putting Tuala over in the corner. Eight minutes later the Saints had a five-point lead, when Api Ratuniyarawa put Teimana Harrison clean through the midfield for a Northampton try, their fifth, that Myler at last converted.

Cue wave after wave of Wasps attacks. With 10 to go, Le Roux thought he had scored after some classic approach play, but the TMO revealed that Launchbury had run a blocking line. So Wasps kept coming. Every phase yielded at the least a half-break, as they worked ever closer. Finally they set up camp in the corner with a series of penalty-winning driven line-outs. It was not until the 80th minute, and fourth such penalty, that the referee reached for his card. Wasps could not take the line-out, with time up, so they tapped and went. Hughes drove close, practically single-handed through a phalanx of Saints defenders, and another phalanx of Wasps players drove Mullan over for the euphorically celebrated try, whose conversion took the game at the death.

Wasps Le Roux; Wade, Daly, Beale, Bassett (Cipriani 69); Gopperth, Simpson (Robson 53); Mullan, Taylor (Cruse 64), Swainston (Doran Jones 60), Launchbury (capt), Myall (Symmons 58), Johnson (Hughes 46), Young, Thompson. Tries Daly, Wade, Simpson, Mullan. Cons Gopperth 3. Pens Gopperth 2.

Northampton Tuala (K Pisi 71); North, Tuitavake (Burrell 64), Mallinder, Foden; Myler, Groom (Dickson 64); A Waller (E Waller 65), Hartley (Haywood 60), Brookes (Hill 56), Lawes, Ribbans (Ratuniyarawa 65), Gibson, Wood (capt; Harrison 60), Picamoles. Sin-bin Gibson 80. Tries Foden, A Waller, North, Tuala, Harrison. Con Myler. Pen Myler.

Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys Att 21,131

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