WHEN Leicester were soundly beaten by Richmond at a frost-bound Athletic Ground one mid-week evening last December, there were already some concerns about the Tigers lacking the consistency so vital to championship winning teams. From the turn of the year those anxieties have assumed a greater substance so that Leicester, with almost two months of the season still to run, find themselves in the unaccustomed position of having little to play for. A couple of minutes later in the 70th minute Rees moved Wasps further ahead and despite another Howarth penalty there was no way back for Sale.Wasps: G Rees; S Roiser, N Greenstock, R Henderson, L Scrase; A King, M Friday (A Gomarsall, 73); D Molloy, S Mitchell (T Leota, 59), W Green, S Shaw, D Cronin, L Dallaglio (capt), P Scrivener, M White (J Worsley, 79).Sale: J Mallinder (capt); M Moore, J Baxendell, C Yates, T Beim; S Howarth, K Ellis; P Winstanley, S Diamond, D Bell, D Baldwin, S Raiwalui, D Erskine (C Murphy, 65), D O’Cuinneagain, P Sanderson (D O’Grady, 67).Referee: A Spreadbury (Bath).. Wasps rumbled into Sale territory and centre Rob Henderson thundered through the smallest of gaps Howarth bounced off him like a moth on a car windscreen. It took a battalion of desperate defenders to bring the bullocking Irishman down.Wasps were beginning to fire and when the replacement hooker Trevor Leota, a volcano of a South Sea Islander from Western Samoa, smashed into the opposition it set up a position from which the fly-half, Alex King, was able to land a drop goal. But the Cheshire side were straight back upfield and putting the squeeze on their hosts. Some superb tackling around the fringes by everyone in a black shirt finally levered Sale out of the danger area, but only ever temporarily.Niggle erupted briefly midway through the second half but shortly after that came the sort of aggression the spectators wanted to see.
But in those early stages there was no way through the feisty Sale defence.It was a little better after the interval when both teams emerged with tempers finally looking under control. Wasps began to apply pressure, which was quickly rewarded when Sale infringed within Rees’s range and he sent over his third penalty. Damian Cronin, the Scotland international lock, and his second-row colleague Simon Shaw regularly took the ball in, Dallaglio and the admirable White would take it on before it was worked to the threequarters. Things spilled over as the half-time whistle was blown when both sets of forwards turned into testosterone tearaways and laid into each other in a brief but bloody brawl.There were some fine moments for a disappointingly small crowd of 3,539 to savour but they were too rare in the first half in which the only scores were penalties, two each for Wasps’ Gareth Rees and Sale’s Shane Howarth.When rugby did break out it was Wasps who dominated. Even the Sale coach, John Mitchell, admitted his team did not deserve to win. “It would have been a criminal offence to Wasps if Matt had scored. We were guilty of not playing total rugby and at one stage of the game we simply gave away too many penalties.”
Too much was riding on the outcome and there was little to savour.
Wasps missed Andy Gomarsall at scrum-half, whocame on far too late for the inexperienced Mike Friday. Up front the Wasps pack tackled themselves into the ground, but Sale were by no means outclassed, they just lacked the firepower to find a way round the determined Wasps defenders.The early exchanges had very little to do with rugby and most certainly did not involve the ball, which appeared at times to be an innocent bystander as two abrasive and jumpy sides expended excess adrenalin in physical confrontation.Wasps were comfortably in front on yellow cards, 2-0, one each to Buster White and Simon Mitchell, in both cases illegal use of the boot was the reason. Dallaglio was having none of it and appeared from nowhere to pull off a match-saving tackle. The wing Matt Moore looked certain for a try that, with a conversion, would have meant Sale not Wasps at Twickenham. The match was dominated by the boot and ill-temper but Wasps emerged from it to reach the final of the Tetley’s Bitter Cup where they will meet their north London rivals Saracens on 9 May. They are a fine side certain to grace a Twickenham final.Northampton: I Hunter; J Sleightholme, G Townsend, M Allen (A Northey, 67), H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson (capt); G Pagel, A Clarke (C Johnson, 63), M Stewart (M Volland, 74), J Phillips, J Chandler, D MacKinnon, G Seely, B Pountney.Saracens: G Johnson; R Constable, P Sella (M Singer, 45), S Ravenscroft, R Wallace; M Lynagh, K Bracken; R Grau, G Chuter, P Wallace, P Johns, D Grewcock, B Sturnham, T Diprose (capt), F Pienaar (A Bennett, 71).Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).