Wasps Pip Exeter in European Rugby Classic
Wasps 25-24 Exeter: Jimmy Gopperth's last-minute conversion sends hosts into European Champions Cup semi-finals
As Wasps director of rugby Dai Young left his seat, he made a remark about his ‘ticker’, with Jimmy Gopperth’s last-gasp kick testing the heart rate of 23,866 spectators in Coventry.
There were four seconds left on the clock when Charles Piutau dived over for his try and half of his team-mates made a beeline for the tunnel because they could not bear to watch the conversion.
His kick sailed through to secure Wasps’ first European semi-final since 2007, breaking Exeter hearts after they let slip a 13-point lead.
‘I don’t think many people were watching with two eyes open,’ said Young. ‘It would have been a lot better for the nerves if it wasn’t on 79 minutes. I think it was heading to the left, but half of Wasps blew it over.’
The Devonians, who were only promoted to the top flight in 2010, went down fighting in a match that will be remembered as one of Europe’s classics.
‘You don’t want to spend too much time dissecting the little bits and pieces,’ said Exeter head coach Rob Baxter. ‘That’s how I’m dealing with things at the moment. I’m really proud of how we turned up.
‘If we’re really going to learn some tough lessons from this, it’s that we went to Ospreys in the pool stages and didn’t pick up a point. In a game this tight, home advantage might just make the difference.’
It was Wasps who weathered the momentum shifts to book a semi-final at the Madejski Stadium. The hosts went six points ahead through Gopperth’s boot, but were unable to mark their early dominance with a try in the opening quarter.
Exeter, meanwhile, proved clinical in opposition territory, where No 8 Thomas Waldrom took his scoring tally to 36 tries in 50 appearances with a quickfire double. His first came off a driving maul, with Geoff Parling claiming the lineout after Exeter repelled the charges of Nathan Hughes, Joe Launchbury and James Haskell.
Gopperth then hit a penalty to regain the lead and, moments later, Waldrom intercepted Bradley Davies’ loose off-load and slid over after a 35-metre run.
Returning from the dressing room with six stitches in his mouth, Wasps skipper James Haskell inspired a second-half comeback. It started in the 44th minute, when Charles Piutau outmuscled Jack Nowell down the left. Elliot Daly provided the initial pass in midfield and, after Dan Robson’s kick through, the Kiwi was on hand to narrow the deficit to just three points.
But Exeter soon re-established their 10-point cushion. Dom Armand and Parling made yards down the left wing and replacement prop Harry Williams used his weight to squeeze under the posts. Henry Slade’s long-range penalty kick then fell just short of the Wasps posts but Gareth Steenson extended the lead when Haskell was penalised. Young sent on his son, Thomas, and the replacement flanker made an instant impact at the breakdown.
‘Thomas came on and did really well,’ said Young. ‘He probably didn’t fancy two hours in the car with me if we had lost. It’s a 23-man game and the guys who came on got us over the line.’
With Exeter camped on Wasps’ line, the youngster won a turnover and Daly charged clear to Chiefs territory. Nowell initially turned the ball over but, after a second wave, Siale Piutau made the scoring pass to his brother, who finished a breathless attack.
Exeter’s defended for their lives, with Dave Ewers winning a late turnover and their lineout forcing Ashley Johnson to overthrow. But in the final play, after the Wasps forwards were forced backwards, the ball was thrown wide, with Daly throwing the final pass to Charles Piutau before Gopperth held his nerve to kick the winning points
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