Wasps have navigated their way from the basement to the top floor by taking the quickest route, their run of 12 victories in their final 14 matches including 10 bonus points as they have played without inhibition. An element of surprise often decides knock-out matches, and Wasps supplied it by basing their game on defence, keeping frills to a minimum and saving the fizzy stuff for when the outcome had been settled and a place secured in the Premiership final on 24 October.
Wasps mauled, one rolling for 30 metres from their 22 in the opening minutes, they scrummaged hard, kicked tactically and dominated the tackle area, ensuring the Bears had little quick ball. They minimised the impact of Semi Radradra and left their opponents unsure which path to take. It was a performance that combined know-how with single-mindedness and aplomb.
When Wasps managed to lose at Leicester in February, they removed the director of rugby, Dai Young, and put head coach, Lee Blackett, in temporary charge. Although the only way was up, with Saracens marooned at the bottom, a switch seemed to have been flicked, because his first match at the helm was a 60-10 victory over Sarries.
Players have spoken about how they started to enjoy their rugby again, which they do when they are winning. Here, they displayed maturity against a side whose selection, with Harry Randall and Kyle Sinckler on the bench, suggested Friday’s European Challenge Cup final against Toulon was not entirely absent from their thoughts.
Not that Bristol came armed with hope rather than expectation. After a passive first-half when only their No 8, Nathan Hughes, returning to his former club, took the battle to the opposition, they began to show more intent, after shaking up their second and front rows, soon reducing their interval deficit of 18 points by seven. But their problems on the floor remained.
The England head coach, Eddie Jones, was among the few who saw Jack Willis again put in a commanding performance in the back row, although such is Wasps’ strength there that Thomas Young and Brad Shields were far more than supporting acts. It was the blanket formed by the home forwards that restricted Bristol and prevented them playing the game on their terms.
For all their reputation as an attacking side, it was their defence that defined Wasps here. They reduced Radradra to a virtual spectator: the centre made one telling break ahead of Harry Thacker’s try, but otherwise he found himself receiving the ball well behind the gainline and quickly closed down and quickly closed down.
It was only late on Bristol secured quick ball from the breakdown: Young and Willis had gone by then, and so had hopes of a day out at Twickenham.
The start was bittersweet for Wasps. They scored their opening try after nine minutes, through Malakai Fekitoa, but it was the New Zealand centre’s last contribution. He had suffered a groin strain earlier after tackling Radradra and had again received treatment just before the home side kicked a penalty to touch.
The driving maul was repelled but Robson, displaying the quick thinking Jones is demanding of his England charges, chipped the ball towards the Bristol line with the outside of his right foot. He had spotted that Piers O’Conor, playing out of position on the wing, was guarding a blind-side that did not carry an attacking threat and so did not have the time to cover across when Fekitoa, who is a doubt for the final, took possession.
Two Jimmy Gopperth penalties after offences committed by Jake Woolmore, the first for grabbing Will Rowlands by the neck and the second at a scrum, gave Wasps a 13-point lead. Bristol responded with a try by Luke Morahan after Hughes took a quick penalty, but the Bears could not solve the problem of how to get the ball away quickly after a tackle and their scrum was in retreat.
Gopperth’s third penalty after John Afoa collapsed a scrum was followed by Willis’s try after Young had started a counterattack after Bristol again lost possession.
Five minutes into the second half, Radradra found himself in space. After Willis had put his body between the ball and the ground to deny Callum Sheedy what had looked a certain try, Thacker finished off a driving maul.
It was the moment of reckoning for Wasps, whose authority was, for the first time, being challenged. Willis won another penalty, forcing Hughes to hold on, and Gopperth converted it.
Five minutes later Robson took a penalty quickly as Bristol inquired why it had been awarded, and dived over. That was effectively it. Zach Kibirige and Matteo Minozzi garnished the victory with tries from flourishing moves before Bristol scored the game’s final two tries through Randall and Max Malins.
It was their first Premiership semi-final for 13 years and despite this defeat they are not likely to have to wait that long for their next one.