Bath Rugby's hopes of a place in the Guinness Premiership Final were dashed today, as London Wasps managed to come top of the gladiatorial match at Adams Park. With one week until the European Challenge Cup Final Bath's focus will now turn instantly to Kingsholm, but even the prospect of silverware will not alleviate the disappointment of a 21-10 semi final defeat.
The west-country team ran out to a loud chorus of cheers, on the bright and sunny afternoon in High Wycombe. The visiting team made a late change to the starting line up as Lee Mears failed to recover from the shoulder injury that he sustained last weekend against Gloucester, while Wasps Hooker Raphael Ibanez suffered a back spasm which also ruled him out of the match.
The game kicked off with a fiery intensity that was to be expected for an encounter with so much at stake. After just five minutes Wasps had been penalised for collapsing the scrum just feet away from their own 22 metre line, giving Olly Barkley an opportunity to put some points on the board. Kicking the ball wide of the right post he did not award Bath with the three, but the centre had a second chance to rectify the misplaced kick one minute later, but once again sent the ball too wide and the score remained at zero.
The next four minutes saw a tennis rally played out as both teams repeatedly booted the ball up and down the pitch. A pass from Michael Claassens saw Bath gain some ground, as good interplay between Butch James and Alex Crockett awarded the visitors with distance. Matt Banahan put his explosive pace into action down the wing, but strong Wasps defence prevented him from getting too close to the white line for deadlock breaking try.
With seventeen minutes gone Bath were nail bitingly close to the try line, after a series of hard hits from the forwards pushed the west country side deep inside the hosts 22. A kick from Danny Cipriani sent Bath back to the halfway line for a line out, but the quick passing of the backs shipped the ball out to the wing for Banahan to lambaste his way through Paul Sackey and Fraser Waters. As the Bath giant fell to the floor, Joe Maddock attempted to keep the ball from bouncing into touch, but to no avail and Wasps were back on the attack. A forward pass to Sackey gave Bath some respite though and after 26 minutes, the match remained scoreless.
With ten minutes left of the first half, Bath finally managed to stamp their mark on the match, as strong defence saw Wasps pegged back on their own line. Poorly placed passes under pressure by Wasps gave Bath the chance they needed and as Josh Lewsey dropped the ball within his own try area, Alex Crockett leapt onto it to ground for the try. A conversion by Barkley sealed seven points for Bath.
Three minutes later and reeling from the point deficit, Wasps exploded through the Bath defence, forcing their way through Danny Grewcock and Peter Short, who had replaced a bleeding Michael Lipman, to open a hole for Fraser Waters to sprint over the line to the right of the posts for the try. A successful conversion by Cipriani took the score up to seven all.
Not satisfied with that lead, Wasps dictated the direction of play for the remainder of the half, with Cipriani passing to Sackey who sprinted to the left corner. Receiving the offload, Flutey managed to ground the ball just over the line, as Daniel Browne and Claassens attempted, in vain, to hold him back. Another conversion by Cipriani took Wasps into the lead with 14 - 7 at half time.
The second half began much the same as the first, with similar ferocity and intensity. The opening six minutes signalled a return to something of a kicking game, but Bath centre Alex Crockett made a number of strong runs to gain some valuable distance for the visiting team. Supported by James and Claassens, Crockett careered up to the 22 metre line, but an irrepressible Wasps defence kept pushing Bath back. An ankle injury to Cipriani led to him being stretchered off from the pitch and the match was temporarily halted.
Back in full swing after the uncomfortable disruption of Cipriani's injury, both teams were on the offensive. The swift interplay through the backs gave Tom Voyce the opportunity to make a run, and run he did - bursting down the wing and going to ground just short before Tom Palmer dived over for Wasps's third try of the match. A conversion by replacement Mark van Gisbergen took Wasps to a lead of 21 - 10. However, Cipriani's injury was to spell the start of the casualties as Wasps' Voyce came off with a shoulder injury.
At 75 minutes Bath were intent on getting back into the game, playing deep inside Wasps' 22. A lineout near the try line was won by Daniel Browne, but a sweep round by Wasps took the ball from Bath's possession and play moved back to the 22 metre line. This did not put Bath off their stride though and instead Fraser Waters was sent to the sin bin for repeated offside. As Wasps played with 14 men, Berne, on for Crockett, broke through the midfield, with James and Barkley in support, but it was not enough to get them across the line and with five minutes left of injury time, the score for Bath failed to change.
In the dying minutes a won lineout by Bath gave replacement fullback Nick Abendanon the impetus to break through the black and gold defence and head towards the halfway line uncontested, but the distance gained was not enough to grab the win for Bath.