London Irish held their nerve to win a sensational game of 14 tries, guaranteeing a place in the end-of-season play-offs and destroying Wasps’ 16-month unbeaten home league record. The three-time Premiership champions had not been beaten at the Causeway Stadium since Bath defeated them in January, 2005.
That record is now in tatters after the Exiles ran in nine tries in a pulsating match that was littered with errors but full of brilliant counter-attacking from both sides.
England wing Tom Voyce completed a hat-trick of tries early in the second half and Ayoola Erinle and Jeremy Staunton also scored for Wasps with Mark Van Gisbergen kicking three conversions and two penalties.
Their defence, though, was leaking like a sieve with Topsy Ojo and Riki Flutey both touching down twice and Dominic Feau’nati, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Bob Casey, Mike Catt and Delon Armitage also helping themselves to tries for the Exiles. Flutey kicked a late penalty and Catt added four conversions.
The result means London Irish are bound for the play-offs and a shot at the Guinness Premiership title after years in the doldrums.
And the signs look ominous for Wasps, whose much-vaunted defence was torn to pieces repeatedly. They now have to win their final game of the regular season at Gloucester to keep their bid for a fourth successive league crown alive.
Wasps had been able to add some extra firepower as Voyce, rested last weekend, returned on the left wing, while centre Stuart Abbott took over from the suspended Rob Hoadley for what could be his last home appearance for the club before joining Harlequins this summer.
Josh Lewsey and Joe Worsley, both nursing sore hamstrings, were on the bench, with Worsley’s absence allowing Mark Lock to continue at open-side.
By contrast, the problems appeared to be piling up for London Irish, particularly in the front row where Danie Coetzee and Faan Rautenbach were missing along with long-serving goal-kicker Barry Everitt and full-back Michael Horak.
Scrums, though, were almost redundant in a pulsating first half played at a furious pace with nine tries scored – five of them in a staggering opening 12 minutes.
If Irish had a reliable goal-kicker they might have been home and dry after running in five tries in the first half-hour but Flutey and Catt could manage only two conversions between them amid a flurry of hooks and slices.
The frantic opening spell saw Wasps go 19-10 up with Erinle, Voyce and Staunton all taking advantage of defensive errors and Van Gisbergen converting twice.
But Irish clearly wanted to run Wasps ragged, attacking at every opportunity with Feau’nati scoring after 35 seconds and Ojo’s try stemming from Armitage’s inventive chip.
And despite falling behind they stuck to the plan with three more scores coming in another purple patch.
Flutey scored in the corner in the 19th minute after Simon Shaw had carelessly lost the ball in his own 22. Catt converted and then provided a deft assist for Tagicakibau to squeeze into the corner, and more smart passing out of the tackle, this time from Feau’nati, put Casey over for an improbable fifth try that Catt converted for a 29-19 lead on the half hour.
Exiles hooker David Paice was sin-binned for handling in a ruck five minutes before the break and some semblance of normal service was resumed when Van Gisbergen kicked the resultant penalty and Voyce intercepted Flutey’s pass and streaked over for his second try to tie up the scores.
When the England wing completed his hat-trick a minute into the second-half – thanks to good support work from Mark Lock and Peter Bracken – it seemed like Wasps had finally gained control.
They could not cut out the errors, though, and London Irish profited when Catt found the space to respond with a 44th minute try and Armitage touched down their seventh under the posts after intercepting Van Gisbergen’s pass.
The Wasps full-back made amends with a long-range penalty that hauled his side back to 37-43 down going into the final quarter.
Flutey, improbably, replied with a long-range penalty to keep Wasps at arms-length and as the champions tried desperately to find a way back into the game they were punished twice in the final five minutes.
Ojo streaked away down the right for his second try and Flutey surged clear for a similar score to send the Exiles fans home in raptures.