Mixed fortunes for Kurtley Beale as Wasps bow ends in victory
Australian star Kurtley Beale scored a try and was sin-binned on his debut as Wasps toppled Connacht 32-17 to go top of their European Champions Cup pool.
Beale, thought to be the Aviva Premiership's highest-paid player, took just seven minutes to open his account as he returned to rugby following more than six months out after suffering a knee injury playing for Sydney-based Super Rugby franchise the Waratahs.
It delayed his Wasps debut until a fortnight before Christmas, and an eventful afternoon at the Ricoh Arena also saw him receive a yellow card for a high tackle. Wasps, though, kept their collective composure as number eight Nathan Hughes, skipper Joe Launchbury and wing Josh Bassett followed Beale's try-scoring example, while fly-half Jimmy Gopperth kicked two penalties and three conversions to underpin a 32-17 victory ahead of next week's Pool Two return fixture in Galway.
Wasps claimed a try-scoring bonus and moved three points clear of Connacht and four above Toulouse, although they were given a stern test by their opponents for large parts of an entertaining contest.
Scrum-half Kieran Marmion and substitute Rory Parata scored tries for the visitors, with fly-half Jack Carty converting both Connacht touchdowns and kicking a penalty, and despite the defeat, last season's Guinness PRO12 champions remain firmly in the quarter-final mix.
Beale's introduction apart, Wasps also welcomed back Launchbury from a two-week ban, while fit-again Gopperth and wing Christian Wade featured behind the scrum. Fly-half Danny Cipriani remained absent due to a calf muscle injury suffered before last weekend's Aviva Premiership game against Worcester.
Lock Ultan Dillane featured in Connacht's line-up for the first time since Ireland's successful autumn campaign, with his fellow international Niyi Adeolokun also featuring on the wing and half-backs Carty and Marmion being reunited.
Connacht, eighth in the PRO12 but a point clear before kick-off as leaders of their Champions Cup group, made the initial running, putting Wasps under pressure through a series of forward-led drives, only for Hughes to lead a strong counter-attack as the game matched early expectations.
And Wasps were in no mood to let the opportunity go astray as they pounded away at Connacht's line before slick passing saw Beale touch down for a try that Gopperth converted for a 7-0 lead.
An eventful afternoon then continued for Beale when he was sin-binned - probably harshly - by French referee Alexandre Ruiz for a high tackle on Adeolokun after the Connacht player appeared to duck into the challenge, and Carty's resulting penalty cut the deficit, before a Gopperth strike made it 10-3.
But Connacht continued to test Wasps' defensive awareness, and they were undone after 24 minutes when Marmion spotted a considerable gap around the forward fringes and sprinted clear to score an opportunist try that Carty converted to tie up an enthralling encounter.
Beale then rejoined the action, yet Connacht had inflicted considerable damage during his temporary absence, scoring 10 points and giving Wasps plenty to think about as a fast and furious battle continued at pace.
Gopperth then kicked a penalty as half-time approached, and Wasps led 13-10 at the interval.
And the second period began in breathless fashion as each side scored a converted try within five minutes, with Hughes' close-range effort being cancelled out by an interception touchdown from Connacht replacement Parata that Carty converted.
Wasps were being tested defensively, but after they had a let-off when Carty missed a penalty, the home side struck in style when Launchbury powered over on a 20-metre surge for a try that saw Gopperth maintain his 100 per cent strike-rate by converting.
Connacht could find no way back this time, and Wasps sealed the deal eight minutes from time when Beale's pass sent an unmarked Bassett over to secure a five-point maximum.