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Wasps win thriller in hunt for European rugby
IF Wasps needed motivation ahead of next weekend's trip to Paris then their 30-29 win over Stade Francais in the first leg of their European play-off was it.
Even before kick off the sense of occasion was palpable as French fans banged their drums inside Adams Park while the stars from across The Channel went through pre-match routines in their flamingo pink shirts.
Wasps grew used to this sort of thing in bygone days, but after years out of the limelight this tantalising taste of what the best of Europe has to offer only whetted the appetite for that 20th and last place in next season's Champions Cup.
They'll face an uphill task to claim it though, because while this match was the most riveting of their season it was their fragility as much as their firepower that made it so.
As they have so often this season, they scored some spectacular tries and built healthy leads of 20-12 and 27-15 in the second half.
But defensive lapses let their glamorous opponents back into it and while Wasps won it with a last-minute penalty, they will start next weekend's denouement as underdogs.
But after this breathless battle, they certainly won't be written off.
If there was a sense beforehand that the two teams would spend the first part of this home and away play-off feeling each other out, then that idea was dispelled in a rambunctious opening ten minutes from the French visitors.
Andy Goode actually kicked Wasps into an early lead but it was the away team which started the game at full speed.
Aided by some marginal calls from referee Johnny Lacey which drew jeers and slow hand claps from the Wasps faithful, Stade made most of the early running and were rewarded with the first try of the tie after ten minutes when former Wasps prop Zak Taulafo reached over.
Julien Dupuy converted to make it 7-3 and the lead would have greater had the nervous-looking nine not missed two earlier and fairly routine penalties.
Wasps regrouped though and, sparked by the inspirational centre Elliot Daly, began force their guests back.
A magnificent tackle by Will Helu on full back Hugo Bonneval helped, but Daly was the catalyst and when Wasps' reply try came he was inevitably at the heart of it, throwing the scoring pass for Tom Varndell to shake off Julien Arias and go over in the corner.
Goode converted from the touchline and, added to an earlier penalty, the black and golds led 13-7 after 26 minutes.
The free-running French came right back at them though with slicing counter-attacks from Bonneval and Djibril Camara causing havoc, and although the combined pace and power of Joe Simpson, Ashley Johnson and Matt Mullan stopped a few raids Wasps were undone after 31 minutes when Camara finished off a big overlap on the left.
But Dupuy's scattergun kicking continued with a wayward conversion meaning Wasps retained their lead at 13-12, and they finished a gripping opening 40 minutes in the ascendancy, with Simpson denied a sniping try on the stroke of half time by flailing French fingertips hooked into the back of his shirt just as he looked certain to burst through the centre.
If the first half was frantic though, it served only to light the fuse for the second, which exploded into life immediately with Wasps crossing twice within five minutes of the restart.
Only one score counted however, with the TMO taking an age to deny James Haskell a try under the posts after he had out sprinted winger Arias from 40m.
Fourth official Dean Richards eventually decided Tom Palmer's hand was in front of Dupuy's as the pair reached for the loose ball that Haskell gathered, but there was no stopping Johnson seconds later as the home team went eight points clear at 20-12.
That became 20-15 with a Stade penalty after 57 minutes, and it could have spelled disaster with Haskell also shown yellow for not rolling away.
With the extra man up front, Stade tried to bully Wasps back over their own line and it wasn't long before the black shirts were on their heels and deep inside their own 22.
But out of adversity and all that, and after absorbing intense French pressure Wasps provided the game's telling moment when Carlo Festuccia emerged with the ball and charged straight at the French pack.
He didn't get far, but Nathan Hughes picked up the baton and made another few precious yards before Simpson arrived on his shoulder.
The scrum half was still the best part of 70m from the try line and Stade had deep defensive cover.
But, socks typically rolled down around his ankles, he took off, opening his stride, veering around Bonneval and outstripping the French back three and by the time he dived over the line the roof had been raised inside Adams Park.
The conversion made it 27-15 and if that's how it remained it would have been a fantastic result.
But the reason Wasps need a back door route into Europe is because they are still fallible, and within moments of Simpson's try he had been charged down, the bounce favoured Jerome Fillol and Stade had a lifeline.
With seven minutes left the visitors went over again through Waisea Vuidravuwala, and after climbing the mountain Wasps had slipped back into the foothills at 29-27 down.
All is not lost though. Goode made it 30-29 with a penalty at the death and Wasps will at least go to Paris next Saturday with a lead to defend.
It's less than it should have been, but it's the least they wanted.
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