Late sting in the tail for Saints
By Mark Kendall. Last Updated: 14/04/07 11:34am
Heineken Cup semi-finalists Northampton are teetering on the brink of relegation from the Guinness Premiership after a 35-29 defeat at Wasps.
The Saints went into the match trailing Worcester by two points, although the Warriors' defeat at London Irish later on Sunday means the fight to avoid the drop will go to the Premiership's final day.
Paul Grayson's men put up a spirited showing against play-off chasing Wasps, but - despite a commendable second-half fight-back - ultimately succumbed to two late Mark van Gisbergen penalties and now know that their destiny is out of their own hands.
For Wasps, who ran in four tries to claim what could prove a vital bonus point, the victory keeps alive their hopes of a top-four finish following last weekend's important triumph over rivals Saracens.
Predictably given their desperate predicament, Northampton made a fast start and were ahead on three minutes as Carlos Spencer landed a penalty after Raphael Ibanez had been caught offside.
The Kiwi fly-half then repeated the trick four minutes later to open up a six-point advantage, but, following a sluggish start, Wasps finally came alive to hit the front on twelve minutes.
Having set up a decent attacking platform in Northampton's 22, rookie fly-half Dan Cipriani - starting his first game at 10 for the hosts - floated an inviting pass into the path of Fraser Waters who hit the line at pace to barge through a couple of would-be tacklers and touch down. Van Gisbergen slotted the extras to make the score 7-6.
Shortly afterwards Saints were dealt a blow as Spencer hobbled off with a foot injury, but skipper Bruce Reihana stepped into the breach in admirable style to kick a penalty on the quarter hour mark that saw the lead change hands again.
Cipriani then had a try disallowed by the video ref on 25 minutes, before van Gisbergen and Reihana swapped penalties to see the teams head in at the break with Northampton 12-10 to the good.
It was Wasps, though, who snatched the momentum back after the break with three tries in the space of a little over ten minutes seemingly ending the game as a contest.
The first was a wonderful flowing move set up by a moment of opportunism by Simon Shaw who pinched the ball at a ruck. It was subsequently spun wide and after Waters had broken the line again with a fine angled run and offloaded to Dominic Waldouck, Paul Sackey was in attendance to accept the ball and steam over in the corner.
Van Gisbergen converted via the woodwork and although Reihana kicked another penalty to reduce the deficit to two points, Wasps were over again as the visitors lost their discipline.
With Ben Cohen having been sent to the sin-bin, the hosts moved the ball first one way and then the other and Cipriani produced a clever faint that enabled him to stretch over and touch the ball down.
Van Gisbergen again converted and the bonus point was wrapped up four minutes later as the full-back produced a superb overhead pass that allowed Sackey to romp home for his second of the afternoon.
This time the conversion was not successful and Wasps appeared to take their foot off the accelerator as hooker Dylan Hartley rumbled over in the corner for a quickfire response for Northampton.
Reihana held his nerve to convert from the touchline and the scores were to be levelled on 66 minutes as Frenchman Christian Labit just had the legs to brush off van Gisbergen and get the ball down on the line.
Reihana produced another pressure kick to convert at the second time of asking after Lewsey's premature charge had put him off on his first attempt and Northampton seemed to have the momentum with the scoreline 29-29.
But they could not maintain their intensity and a couple of late errors handed van Gisbergen shots at goal from short and long range and he landed both to inflict a punishing and potentially fatal defeat on Saints.