FIVE Premiership wins in a row ground to a halt at the Madejski Stadium as Wasps slipped out of the top four with a 30-19 defeat to London Irish.
A string of frantic, marginal victories had carried Wasps into the exulted air of the play-offs, but all that intensity was missing today as they started drowsily and then, after brief signs of life late in the first half, slumped back into their chairs to slide to their first league defeat since Exeter on December 1.
Wasps were actually on course for win number six as they battled their way to a 16-11 lead just before the interval thanks to another magnificent finish from Christian Wade, but it was reverse gear from then on in as Irish finished with 16 unanswered points to win by a margin.
With Gloucester beating Worcester and Northampton shading Bath, Wasps are now one of three teams separated by just a point hunting down the final semi-final spot.
Next Friday they go to Worcester before Saints come to Wycombe following a two-week LV Cup hiatus; if they can regroup for the Sixways in five days time, that cup break might come just in time for Wasps as they gather themselves for what promises to be a sprint finish.
They could certainly do with a break as, not for the first time, they seemed caught out by an early kick-off.
They were slow to get going in last weekend's 1pm start against Gloucester and again today they were easily second best in the opening stages.
That they reached 20 minutes just 6-0 down says something about their defence though, as Irish spent almost all the first quarter camped inside the black and golds' half.
Twice the Exiles got over the try-line in a super-charged start, but James Cannon held them up from a driving line-out with nine minutes played and a majestic wing-on-wing tackle from Christian Wade on Marland Yarde denied them just moments later. Wasps did cough up close-range penalties in the first, fifth and 13th minutes though, and Tom Homer landed two of them to put Irish in control.
A fourth penalty in front of the posts came after 24 minutes and Ian Humphreys turned three points into five by taking it quickly to send Shane Geraghty sliding over.
By then though, Wasps had weathered the storm and established a foothold in the game. Their first spell of possession had earned them penalties after 18 and 22 minutes, and although Stephen Jones missed the first of those he landed the second and then added two more off the tee after 28 and 33 minutes.
That made it 11-9 and Wasps' arrival into the contest was complete a minute later when man-of-the-hour Wade jolted his team in front with another exhibition try to leave mouths gaping.
He scored against Harlequins two weeks ago and against Gloucester last week, but his quicksilver effort here was better than both as he collected the ball at the junction of touchline and 22 before slicing down a narrow ribbon of turf, weaving inside and out to create space that wasn't there.
Homer came across but Wade flashed past and Jones' conversion eased Wasps into a 16-11 lead.
Against a side struggling at the wrong end of the table, Wasps might have expected to pull away from that point.
However, after Wade's fast-forward intervention Wasps pressed the pause button for 20 minutes and by the time the game entered the final quarter they had a match to win again.
An Irish penalty on the stroke of half-time cut Wasps' lead to 16-14, and they missed the boat at the start of the second half when Chris Hala'ufia was sin-binned for leading with the elbow on Thomas Rhys Thomas.
Jones landed the resulting penalty, but they couldn't add to that score with the extra man and instead Irish came storming back at them with two more Homer penalties either side of a glorious try from Yarde.
When the dust settled Wasps were trailing 27-19 and, with 15 minutes left, they had to find some momentum from a standing start.
They couldn't do it.
Dai Young threw on his bench in an effort to enliven his team but they'd been stuck in neutral for most of the afternoon and that's exactly how they finished, with Homer adding another late penalty to make sure there wasn't even a losing bonus point for consolation.