Joe Simpson produced a virtuoso performance in the Recreation Ground sunshine as Wasps stung Bath to preserve their unbeaten Guinness Premiership record this season.
The Wasps scrum-half – butted and left in a dazed state by red-carded Harlequins lock George Robson at Twickenham last Saturday – gave Bath a king-sized headache. Simpson, who is currently in the England Saxons squad, will surely challenge for full Test honours sooner rather than later if he maintains such peak form.
Bath could not handle the 21-year-old, whose speed and purpose around the forward fringes drove Wasps towards a first Premiership away win by any club this term.
But it ended up being a close-run thing for the Londoners. They had England prop Tim Payne sent off late in the action after he collected two yellow cards for scrum offences, and Bath number eight Ben Skirving’s try – in the 20th minute of second-half injury time – meant the home side almost escaped. But fly-half Ryan Davis sent the touchline conversion attempt wide and Wasps could start celebrating.
Wings Tom Varndell and David Lemi both capitalised on Simpson’s adventure. A first-half Varndell double made it four tries in two games for the former Leicester speedster. Lemi’s touchdown on the stroke of half-time gave Wasps a lead they never lost, taking the points despite fly-half Danny Cipriani slotting a solitary successful strike from five shots at goal.
Captain Michael Claassens scored an early try for Bath, with his half-back partner Davis kicking a penalty and conversion, but the west country side have now lost two from two heading to Stockport and an appointment with Sale Sharks next Friday night.
Bath made two enforced changes from the side beaten by Gloucester last weekend, with full-back Nick Abendanon and prop David Wilson both out injured. Abendanon’s elbow ligament problem could mean a three week lay-off, but Wilson – a member of Martin Johnson’s England elite player squad – faces two months out after undergoing knee surgery. Joe Maddock moved from the wing to replace Abendanon, while Duncan Bell took over tighthead duties, packing down alongside David Flatman and Lee Mears.
Wasps, conquerors of Quins seven days ago, paraded British and Irish Lions flanker Joe Worsley for his first start since this summer’s South Africa tour. But Worsley and his team-mates were immediately on the back foot as Bath poached a fourth-minute lead when Claassens took a quick penalty and dived over Wasps’ line under a pile of bodies.
Davis, who missed three first-half penalties at Gloucester last Sunday, slotted the angled conversion and Bath were up and running in front of a record 11,300 home crowd. Wasps looked lethargic in comparison, yet they stirred midway through the opening period after Cipriani had rifled two long-range penalty attempts wide.
Simpson, eager to put a quick tempo on Wasps’ game, tormented the Bath defence and as a brawl involving four players broke out underneath the posts, Varndell skipped in for a try. Cipriani’s touchline conversion was off-target, and a Davis penalty five minutes later put Bath 10-5 in front.
Simpson continued to roam free and his work for Wasps’ second try – again scored by Varndell – was exceptional. There appeared to be nothing on when he sniped down the blindside of a scrum deep inside his own half, but Simpson’s searing pace took him unchallenged to Bath’s 22 and Varndell finished off by brushing aside a weak Maddock challenge. Cipriani’s fourth successive missed kick meant Wasps were only level, rather than ahead, yet they were not to be denied an interval advantage.
Cipriani, more effective in open play than with the boot, freed centre Steve Kefu through a defence-splitting pass and Lemi did the rest, dummying Maddock as he scorched over. And this time, Cipriani found his radar, adding the extras for a 17-10 interval advantage.
Wasps made a half-time switch, sending on Dave Walder for Mark van Gisbergen, with Cipriani moving to full-back as the visitors looked to build their lead. The visitors maintained a seven-point advantage but Bath began to exert pressure inside the final quarter, resulting in Payne being sin-binned for pulling down a scrum.
It all came after Varndell knocked on under no pressure behind his own line, offering Bath a possible way back into a contest that was slipping away from them. But Wasps’ temporary seven-man pack raised their game, keeping Bath at bay before the home side blew a gilt-edged chance when substitute Jack Cuthbert flicked a forward pass to unmarked wing Matt Banahan.
Bath continued to batter away and Payne received a second yellow card during the prolonged closing chapter. It meant Wasps were again reduced to seven forwards, and although Skirving ensured late drama with his last-gasp try, the visitors deservedly triumphed.