It has been a weekend for fly-halves coming off the bench and having a decisive say and if Jimmy Gopperth is at the opposite end of the career spectrum to Marcus Smith, the veteran New Zealander proved every bit as important in Wasps’ hard-fought victory over Northampton.
The 38-year-old came on midway through the second half and kicked two pivotal penalties to ensure Wasps edged out Northampton in a bizarre encounter – at times entertaining, at others error-strewn. Jacob Umaga impressed at No 10 for the hosts but he was wayward from the tee – missing three kicks at goal – and Gopperth’s key interventions, with the Wasps hooker Gabriel Oghre in the sin bin, kept the visitors at bay.
For Northampton it is a first defeat of the season and they may wonder what the outcome would have been had Oghre been shown red rather than yellow by the referee Craig Maxwell-Keys for a high tackle on Alex Mitchell in the 62nd minute. By that stage Wasps had seized the initiative through Dan Robson’s second-half try and led 20-10. But with Lewis Ludlam replying with a pushover try soon after, the Saints had a foothold again, and may have capitalised against 14 men for the rest of the match.
“There is no doubt it is a red card,” said Northampton’s director of rugby, Chris Boyd. “I don’t like the process particularly but you can’t tell me a swinging arm to the head, there is no sanction, I don’t think there is any malice or intent, it is unfortunate. We were too dumb to take advantage.”
Gopperth, egter, was anything but. He is in his seventh season with Wasps, having made his Premiership debut for Newcastle in 2009, and while this is the last year of his current contract, he demonstrated just how important having an experienced head to call on can be.
“When you bring on someone like Jimmy Gopperth to close out a game you know you’re going to be in a good place,” said Robson. “He’s one of the hardest workers at the club. I don’t think we’ll see others play on to 38 yet he makes it look easy. I can tell you as a 29-year-old I don’t know how he does it. He’s a very special player and a special bloke.”
Northampton struck first in a frenetic start when their bullocking No 8 Juarno Agustus blasted through Oghre in the middle of the pitch and delivered a delightful offload for Sam Matavesi. Dan Biggar scored the conversion but Saints soon lost their outside centre Matt Proctor, impressive hitherto, to injury.
Wasps had yet to click into gear but with their first real attacking opportunity of the match they had their opening try. Oghre produced a fine dummy after breaking from the back of a maul and found Robson outside him. The scrum-half shipped the ball on to Zach Kibirige who had the pace to run clear in the right-hand corner. Jacob Umaga converted before Biggar and the Wasps fly-half traded penalties before the interval.
Wasps resumed the brighter and after Vaea Fifita had a try down the left disallowed for a forward pass, Umaga landed his second penalty soon after, having missed one just before the interval. Northampton were slick in the opening exchanges, but were growing increasingly sloppy and Wasps’ second try came after a prolonged spell in the Saints half.
Thomas Young made the break and delayed his offload perfectly for Robson to seize and dot down. Umaga converted but Northampton were back to within touching distance after Ludlam’s close-range try, which came following Oghre’s yellow. He was fortunate to escape a red card given there was no obvious mitigation for contact with Mitchell’s head – and while Ludlam capitalised quickly, the missed conversion from Biggar – who had earlier taken a knock to his leg – was costly.
Northampton still had time, on their hands with Oghre off the pitch, but their indiscipline proved their undoing. They gave Wasps three kickable penalties and Gopperth landed two of them to steer his side to victory, even if Fish’s late try ensured Northampton ended with three tries to their hosts’ two and sealed a losing bonus point.