Wasps sting Saints despite Sopoaga's yellow card
MATCH REPORT: Wasps restarted their Premiership campaign with a dramatic 34-21 win over Northampton Saints at the Franklin’s Gardens.
Jack Willis scored one of his side’s four tries and produced a crucial steal on his own line in a finely-poised third quarter, the highlights of an accomplished display that enhances his prospects of figuring in England Jones’ plans.
The 23-year-old was poised to make his Test debut in South Africa two years ago only for a serious knee injury to stall his stunning early progress, but his return to form and fitness is putting pressure on England’s established flanks Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.
He was helped by a virtuoso Wasps as the Premiership’s otherwise uninspiring opening weekend after a five-month interruption caused by Covid-19 finally produced some fireworks.
Northampton staged a second-half fightback to generate uncertainty but Wasps maintained their strong pre-lockdown form to claim a fourth successive Premiership victory under new head coach Lee Blackett, propelling them into fourth place.
Willis’ back-row colleague Thomas Young was named man of the match, while former England number eight Brad Shields also shone in the bonus-point win that was signposted early on.
The absence of fans at Franklin’s Gardens meant Dan Biggar could be heard repeatedly reading his team-mates the riot act as Northampton’s defence cracked with alarming ease to enable Josh Bassett and Willis to cross inside the opening quarter.
— Wasps Rugby (@WaspsRugby) August 16, 2020
“It’s too easy, we can’t allow it,” the Wales flyhalf warned as Wasps raced over for the opener from a scrum move that saw Jacob Umaga link expertly with Jimmy Gopperth as Bassett roamed off his wing and through the middle of Saints’ splintering midfield.
Four minutes later, Biggar was incensed once more when Dan Robson broke from his own half to initiate an attack that ended with Willis powering over.
Two Biggar penalties gave Saints reward for spending most of the opening 30 minutes in the opposition half but the frailty of their defending undermined their control of territory and possession.
A pair of crunching hits by Malakai Fekitoa on Fraser Dingwall made their mark but the second was deemed high and resulted in a yellow card for the All Black centre.
Northampton were unable to capitalise on the extra man and instead were opened up when an offload by Shields sent Umaga over, only for referee Karl Dickson to spot a forward pass.
Saints drew first blood early in the second half with wing Taqele Naiyaravoro taking the ball up the middle from a scrum, sucking in players to allow Alex Mitchell to grab and dot down from close range to cut the gap to 14-13 and blow the game open.
The energy was quickly sucked out of the Northampton comeback, however, when a series of forward drives ended with prop Ben Harris burrowing over before a Lima Sopoaga penalty propelled Wasps into a seemingly commanding 24-14 lead.
But the roller coaster continued when lock David Ribbans finished a driving maul launched from a line-out and Biggar landed another penalty to reduce the deficit to three points.
Sopoaga added a penalty for Wasps before a devastating move started by Young ended with a second try for Bassett that sealed a five-point haul for the visitors.
For Northampton Saints:
Tries: Mitchell, David Ribbans
Pens: Biggar 3
Tries: Bassett 2, Willis, Harris
Cons: Gopperth 3, Sopoaga.
Pens: Sopoaga 2
Yellow card: Lima Sopoaga (Wasps, 62 – deliberate knock down)
Northampton: 15 George Furbank, 14 Harry Mallinder, 13 Fraser Dingwall, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Ahsee Tuala, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Teimana Harrison (captain), 7 Lewis Ludlam, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Api Ratuniyarawa, 4 David Ribbans, 3 Paul Hill, 2 Mikey Haywood, 1 Francois van Wyk.
Replacements: 16 Sam Matavesi, 17 Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Alex Coles, 20 JJ Tonks, 21 Henry Taylor, 22 Matt Proctor, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro.
Wasps: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Zach Kibirige, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jimmy Gopperth, 11 Josh Bassett, 10 Jacob Umaga, 9 Dan Robson, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Thomas Young, 6 Jack Willis, 5 Will Rowlands, 4 Joe Launchbury (captain), 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Tommy Taylor, 1 Ben Harris.
Replacements: 16 Gabriel Oghre, 17 Tom West, 18 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 19 James Gaskell, 20 Sione Vailanu, 21 Ben Vellacott, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Ryan Mills.
Referee: Karl Dickson
Assistant referees: Anthony Woodthorpe and Hamish Smales
TMO: Graham Hughes