A second semi-final; a second epic of scarcely conceivable drama and intensity. Finally, after a second half that touched extraordinary heights, it was Wasps who stepped clear from the carnage and on to Twickenham, stealing yet another victory at this new home of theirs at the very death.
After the most traumatic season they have known, Leicester came here without so much as a prayer, but what a performance they put in when it mattered. Not for the first time recently, Wasps were forced to find a way to snatch victory, and that they did the only way they know how – by running and running again and again in the most bewildering variety of angles. How Leicester’s defence held out as long as they did is of immense credit to a side that seem to have found themselves again at last, but there is just no answering Wasps when they turn it on as they did here.
The excellence of the game rarely dropped, but by necessity we had to build by degrees to such a breathless climax. The terms of the contest were clearly drawn beforehand – it would likeliest be Leicester’s muscularity against the quicksilver waves of Wasps’ attack. That certainly seemed the case early on, the home side taking a 10-point lead in fewer minutes. The try upon which that lead was predicated was a Wasps classic.
Danny Cipriani and Christian Wade looped with menace behind Jimmy Gopperth off a driven line-out, and their mere presence seemed enough to freak out Leicester’s midfield. When Gopperth fed Cipriani, Mathew Tait was out of position, and a simple pass released Kurtley Beale, who exchanged passes with Willie le Roux on the wide outside, for the former to stroll over. .
But the Leicester ship is steadier in these days. They more than anyone know this play-off business well. Their policy is to engage with three meaty lock-forward types in the back five of their scrum, and with Ben Youngs and the gratefully reinstated Telusa Veainu lending them a little stardust of their own, they worked their way back into the contest.
A couple of Freddie Burns penalties were answered by one from Gopperth, before Leicester drew level just before the half-hour with a try Wasps themselves would have been proud of. With Cipriani on the floor, receiving attention, Burns pulled the ball back to Owen Williams and he ghosted through for the first cut. A couple of meaty drives later, and Burns sent out a delicious cut-out pass over the outstretched hands of Wade to send Peter Betham over.
Wasps reasserted some pressure in the minutes approaching half-time. Gopperth hit the post with one penalty, before earning the home team a three-point lead on the stroke of half-time. Mike Fitzgerald obstructed a chaser during an up-and-under for the first offence, and some Leicester chat cost them another 10 metres, moving the penalty within Gopperth’s range. He made no mistake.
The occasion was proving every bit the equal of the extraordinary scenes in Exeter earlier in the afternoon. With a 32,000-capacity stadium all but full of raucous fans, it was possible to believe all is well with the English game. And then we had the underdog take the lead deep into the third quarter.
Both sides turned each other’s ball over repeatedly in one frantic passage, before Leicester were on to a loose Wasps pass. A half-break by Ben Youngs sent Brendan O’Connor on a run to within five metres, whence Burns and Williams shipped swift passes to Veainu who had acres to score in. Thus we entered the final quarter with another upset on the cards, and Wasps’ long home record on the line.
An unbelievable passage ensued, Wasps coming at Leicester in those constant waves, the depth of their runners varying, pulling the Leicester defence into horribly ugly shapes, but never quite breaking it. Even after a intercept and hack downfield, Wade was back to tidy up, and Gopperth came away for yet another manic attack.
That Leicester defence was extraordinary, and Wasps could not help but spill eventually. Leicester finally could clear after around 20 phases, but minutes later Cipriani put Thomas Young through for another attack, this one dashed when Josh Bassett couldn’t quite take the off-load.
Still they came, now deep into the last five minutes. Leicester stole an attacking line-out, but Guy Thompson stole it back, and Wade was off down the right. Now Wasps drove hard and relentlessly at the heart of that defence, and with Burns the latest to be floored by the intensity, lightning hands from Cipriani and Gopperth, at the all but last, sent Bassett over in the corner. An extraordinary climax to a contest – and a season – that so richly deserved. Buckle yourselves in for the final next weekend.