London Wasps missed out on a Guinness Premiership play-off spot despite securing a hard-fought victory over Newcastle at Kingston Park.
Bath’s victory over Leeds means the London side miss out on a place in the semi-finals for the second year running since their 2008 Guinness Premiership triumph. That result also meant the Wasps careers of Danny Cipriani, who left the field early on with a thumb injury, and Paul Sackey ended in disappointment before their moves to Melbourne Rebels and Toulon respectively.
Defeat sees Newcastle, for whom lock James Hudson was outstanding, finish a lowly 10th but, in head coach Alan Tait’s first game in charge, there were encouraging signs the north-east fans can look forward to a better campaign next season.
Wasps had led 10-7 at the break thanks to a try from hooker Rob Webber and five points from the boot of fly-half Dave Walder, with Jimmy Gopperth scoring a converted try for the hosts.
Newcastle re-took the lead through Grant Shiells’ try, but Dan Ward-Smith replied almost immediately for the visitors and a lovely break from scrum-half Joe Simpson sent Sackey in for a wonderful try. Walder’s second penalty sealed the win before Tim Swinson got a late consolation for the Falcons.
Newcastle captain Carl Hayman made his final appearance for the club before joining Toulon while Rob Vickerman came into the centre and Danny Williams started on the wing in the absence of the injured Charlie Amesbury. Cipriani started at full-back for the visitors with Tom Varndell while lock Simon Shaw and flanker Joe Worsley missed out through illness and injury, with Ward-Smith moving to second row and Serge Betsen starting on the blindside flank.
Tait had only been handed the reins following the departure of Steve Bates on Tuesday, and he could hardly have wished for a better start as the Falcons showed excellent patience to build through the phases for the opening score. A sniping break from scrum-half Micky Young allowed Gopperth, the Premiership’s top pointscorer, to break into the Wasps 22 and, a few phases later, the fly-half cut back against the grain and brushed off a weak Cipriani tackle to cross for a third-minute try he converted.
And the hosts should have extended their lead when a fierce hit by Gcobani Bobo on Sackey sparked a smart counter-attack. Full-back Alex Tait made ground with an arcing outside break but flanker Brent Wilson could not hold the final pass with a clear run to the line ahead.
Wasps responded as Sackey broke out of his own 22 but lock George Skivington lost the ball in contact in what was proving to be an entertaining end-of-season encounter. Cipriani was then forced off in the 23rd minute after appearing to fall awkwardly dotting down a Newcastle kick-ahead, Mark Van Gisbergen was his replacement.
But the visitors shrugged off that blow to level the scores, a well-controlled driving maul allowing Webber to burrow over the line, Walder adding the conversion against his former club. And Walder then gave Wasps the lead as he knocked over a simple penalty after Tane Tu’ipulotu was penalised for hands in the ruck.
Wasps were reduced to 14 men in the 48th minute when Webber was sin-binned for pulling back the Newcastle support after Hudson had taken a Gopperth cross-kick. And they were punished immediately as lock Swinson offloaded out of the tackle to send replacement prop Grant Shiells over, Gopperth judging the blustery conditions to perfection to land the conversion.
But the game turned back in the visitors’ favour as the lead lasted all of three minutes. Bobo’s poor clearance kick was charged down, and Wasps took full advantage of the field position as Ward-Smith crashed through a tackle to cross, although Walder failed to add the extras.
Newcastle laid siege to the Wasps line but were unable to make their pressure tell and they were punished in the 63rd minute. Simpson used his pace to make an intelligent blindside break from the base of a scrum on halfway and freed Sackey on the right, the England winger made no mistake as he stepped Tait’s covering tackle for a wonderful try which Walder converted.
Wasps were now in firm control and Walder added his second penalty in the 71st minute to close out the win. But Newcastle kept going and Swinson barged over in the final seconds for a consolation try, converted by replacement Tom Catterick.