A Cinderella Story

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Derek Richardson

Derek Richardson

I’m hurting right now, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

I’d be willing to bet that the players are hurting a good deal more than me, and the coaches too. I actually can’t think of much worse ways to lose a game as important as that one than by a penalty in the dying moments of extra time.

In some ways I’d rather we put up a valiant fight but were outclassed. But to have played as well as we did, for the game to be as close as it was, and to have lead for a large part of it only to have it snatched away by what feels like a toss of a coin really burns.

That doesn’t mean I begrudge Exeter their win. They have played really well all season, and there has literally been almost nothing between us all season. We finished on the same points in first and second, and only tries scored put us in first. One team had to win, and as you will no doubt have read many times in the rugby press already Exeter’s story is a rags to riches fairytale that makes the perfect story. It is a tale of the plucky underdogs winning the biggest prize of all thanks to good teamwork and brilliant coaching.

But that fails to take account of the fact that Wasps’ story is similar. We weren’t the plucky winner of the Championship promoted to the big league but fully expected to go straight back down that somehow managed to survive, rebuild, strengthen, and eventually beat the best in the world. But Wasps are a team that had no right to survive.

We were saved from relegation by one tackle. One man’s premature celebration, coupled with another man’s desparate attempt to help his team stay up – and a man who was famed for never really tackling at that – kept Wasps in the Premiership when they should really have gone down.

And if Wasps had been relegated they likely wouldn’t have survived.

The team was bankrupt. David “Dai” Young was forced to buy supplies from his own pocket, and somehow not only managed to keep the platers motivated, but also managed to persuade new players to sign for the club. It’s not a secret that I credit him with saving the club from its darkest hours, but there is another man who needs to be mentioned.

Wasps were a team on the edge, unwanted tenants of a football club, playing in a small stadium at the end of an industrial estate. A team fielding a mixture of untested academy prospects alongside retired players who had agreed to put on the kit to sit on the bench so we could field a full team. A team with no prospects, no long term owner, and no way to survive. The only perceivable future was a gradual sink through the leagues until finally vanishing altogether.

And then the unthinkable happened.

The club was bought, lock stock and barrel by a successful businessman. But not just any old businessman, a man who had not only made himself an awful lot of money, but a man who was a genuine rugby fan. A man who recognised the heritage, the potential, and the possibilities in the team.

Derek Richardson came on board when we needed a saviour most, and whilst it seems a little hyperbolic to use that word it is the most appropriate one I can come up with.

Within no time at all Wasps had some security. We weren’t relegation prospects any more, and Dai could keep his money and not have to buy supplies for the team. Retired players could watch the team from the stands instead of the bench, and new players started to come in.

Then, seemingly out of the blue Derek’s Wasps bought an immense arena two hours up the road and the team moved away from Adams Park.

I won’t lie, I thought it was a mistake. I had grown to love Adams Park, and the Ricoh was too far away for me to get to regularly, but I’m a big enough man to admit I was wrong.

I thought it was a cynical move to make some fast money and that the club would end up a poor second to the financial interests of an already rich man.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

No-one who saw Derek celebrating Daly’s try yesterday could believe that he doesn’t really care. He is a man with a real passion for rugby, and he actually cares about the club, the players, and the supporters. Not long ago my youngest son went into remission after a year’s treatment for a rare form of Cancer. I’d never met Derek, or even had any reason to speak to him, but he rang me at home to offer his congratulations and to tell me to let him know if I brought my son to the Ricoh so he could make sure we got to meet the players and made it as special a day as possible.

So whilst Exeter’s Cinderella story is complete. They’ve gone from plucky losers to ultimate winners. Ours is even more complete too. Winning the Premiership would have been the icing on the cake, but the fact is that we were seconds away from vanishing, and now we are topping the league, playing in the biggest stadium in the Premiership with record crowds, we are playing exciting, entertaining rugby, and we are genuinely looking to the future without apprehension.

And that is down to one man.

Thanks Derek, we owe you one.

An open letter to Saracens’ Fans

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Dear Saracens fans

Firstly congratulations on your stunning victory last weekend. It was great to see not only an English team win the European Champions cup, but also to see a team that has almost become a force of nature in full flow.

You thoroughly deserved the win, and the fact that it was a double makes it even more impressive.

And that leads me to the point of this missive.

Enjoy it. You are clearly one of the best teams in the world right now, you are accumulating silverware at a quite terrifying rate and it is well deserved. Your players are great, and they play together as a team so well that they all look even better than they would anywhere else. Don’t let anyone tell you you don’t deserve the plaudits you are getting. You really do.

But be aware that it is unlikely to last forever. Ten years ago we were where you are now. Celebrating yet more silverware, and feeling that it was ours by right.

In some ways it was, but in the same way the rapid slide to the bottom of the table, to be saved from relegation by a tackle from a man reknowned for never tacking was ours by right. That is just the way rugby is.

Some people, fans of other teams, learned to hate us back then when we were at the top. For some reason that seems to be the way of things. I’m guessing you have noticed that. People run your team down for being successful, and you down for supporting them. For some folk that will never change. Some people still hate Wasps and for no reason other than we beat them 10 years ago.

You’re also bearing the brunt of the salary cap debacle. Whatever you think of that, whether you believe your team was guilty or not it isn’t going to go away. It just becomes part of who you are. Much like Quins and “Bloodgate” and us with our uncontested scrums. It isn’t fun, but it is part of the team identity. But that is what being a rugby fan is all about, taking the rough with the smooth, experiencing the heartache of the lows, and the joy of the highs, as well as the guilt of knowing that perhaps your team weren’t as innocent as you’d want them to be.

So enjoy it, try to ignore the odd glitch along the way. You had the Valentine’s Day massacre last year (still one of my favourite all time games), but find any long term Wasps’ fan and watch their face when you say “Pertemps Bees” and you’ll know that you’re not alone in having the odd unexpected failure when you are otherwise on the top of the world.

I have no idea whether you will stay at the top of years, or whether this is the beginning of the end for you, but either way I hope that we’ll see you in the finals at Twickenham and that we spoil your party, just like we did for Leicester all those years ago.

Domestic rugby is in a great place right now, and that is due, at least in part, to you. We wouldn’t have been able to have the resurgence we have had if it wasn’t for you.

So thank you.

Well done for winning yet another cup, and hopefully see you in a few weeks.

Vespula Vulgaris

The Downside of Having Kurtley Beale in Wasps’ Squad

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Kurtley Beale’s Influence

Kurtley Beale

Kurtley Beale – Once a Wasp?

Kurtley Beale is regarded as one of the best players in the world, and despite his recent injury that could easily have ended his career, it is easy to see why.

He manages to do incredible things on the rugby pitch.  Not just the lines he picks, the spaces he sees, but also the way he uses the ball and does things no-one else would consider.

It is this very ability that set up Wasps first try against Bristol this weekend.

Simpson lifts the ball quickly from a ruck and passes it straight to Kurtley Beale.  Beale takes a fraction of a second to look, and makes the decision to run.  He can see he has support if he needs it, Phil Swainston is the next man in the line, and so if Beale goes down he knows he has a prop with him to prevent the turnover.  He drops his weight and runs an intersecting line towards the Bristol defence.

Bristol however have got their confidence up after scoring earlier, and know the threat Kurtley Beale presents so double tackle him.  And this is where the magic happens.

Beale can clearly see he is not going to make it through the line this time, and so decided to offload.  Somehow he manages to pop an arm out of the mass of limbs surrounding him and without dropping the ball flicks it perfectly into Swainston’s hands.

Kurtley Beale

Swainston spins, and offloads the ball to Bassett exactly as a forward should – back to the tackle, both hands on the ball, and the rest is history.

Lets look at it again from a different angle.

Kurtley Beale

It’s even more impressive from the front.  There is no way anyone whould have the freedom to move the ball around that Beale somehow creates.

And it is exactly this ability that caused the first try for Bristol against us.

When George Smith was with Wasps he not only played brilliantly well, but he also changed the way Wasps played.  He lead both by example, and by directly showing other players how to do the things he did.  It revolutionized our game, and in particular catapulted Thomas Young from being a promising benchwarmer, to a genuine international contender.  Kurtley Beale has done exactly the same thing.  But instead of the rest of the squad picking up on the judgement and wiley cunning of Smith, they are picking up on the astonishing ball skills of Beale.

The problem with that, is that if it goes wrong, it tends to go wrong much more spectacularly than just failing to get a turnover.  Let’s look at that Bristol try again.

Joe Launchbury emulating Kurtley Beale

Joe Launchbury sees the ball is free and snatches it up.  This is one of the things he does better than anyone else in the world.  He seems to simply know by instinct where the ball is and whether he is allowed to take it.  Whether it is in the ruck, defending a maul, or in open play like this.  He spins, and sets off down the field.  The turnover is won and Wasps are on the charge, however when he is tackled, instead of going down and recycling the ball he does a “Beale”.  He spins, and offloads it with one hand to Simpson.  It isn’t a pretty pass, and it’s certainly not up their with Beale’s offloads, but it works.

Simpson passes it immediately to Thompson who is recently back from injury and not only playing very well, but also fighting for his starting place.  He makes some ground before running into the Bristol defence that is starting to creak.  Instead of taking the contact and trusting that his teammates will recycle the ball quickly he too attempts a “Beale”.  But this time it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

Guy Thompson trying a Kurtley Beale style one handed offload

A Bristol player gets a hand to it, somehow manages to avoid being penalised for a definite knock on, and the try is scored.

I have no doubt that Kurtley Beale would have managed the offload, but I also have little doubt that the ball would never had got to Thompson if Launchbury hadn’t also been influenced by Beale in training and on the match field.

It is clear that having a player of Beale’s quality changes the way the team plays.  It inspires people, and lets them see what is possible.  And it is this very style of play, that pushes the boundaries of what is possible on the field that makes Wasps such an amazing team to watch.

I have no doubt that Beale’s presence has not only lifted the team by his skill on the pitch, but also by lifting the skills of every single player in the squad.  That is why he is worth every penny Wasps have spent on getting him here, and it is why Wasps are still top of the table with only a few games to play.

Sadly its also why sometimes players do things that seem silly to those of us sitting and watching.  But let’s just say that Thompson’s crazy one handed offload had worked.  He had Bassett, Daly, and leRoux on his shoulder, with only one defender to beat.  It would have been the sort of try that would have been in his highlight reel for the rest of his career.

So keep trying the one handed offloads, the bizarre running angles, and the dainty chips that fail as often as they succeed.  Because they are what make us special.  And long after Kurtley Beale has left, his legacy will remain in the way we play.

What do you think? Come and discuss it in OUR FORUMS

James Haskell for England Captain

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James Haskell and Hartley talking to Poite

Haskell and Hartley talking to Poite

James Haskell has come in for a lot of stick recently after Romain Poite’s snarky reply to him during last weekend’s International against Italy. I think not only is ti completely unjustified criticism, but he should be being lauded for his actions, not slated.

Unless you’ve spent the last week living in a cave you no doubt know that Italy, under their head coach O’Shea played a very unusual tactic. They refused to commit players to tackle when England had the ball, and by doing so did not create a ruck. The consequence of this was that there was no off-side line and so the Italian players could legally walk around the tackle and disrupt the patterns of the English team.

Whether you think this was a travesty of rugby, or an inspired bit of tactical play by a wiley coach is irrelevant. It was clearly legal, and was equally clearly causing England some serious problems.

What was also obvious was that there had been some sort of discussion beforehand between Italy and Poite. At no point did he look like he even considered penalising the Italian players, and was clearly on the same page as them in their desire to upset the apple cart. It was revealed after the game that there had indeed been a discussion where the tactic was explained and Poite agreed it would be legal if certain criteria were followed. At no point was the England squad party to these discussions.

And so, during the match, when the tactic was in full flow, and Poite was happily letting the Azzuri disrupt the game England were not just on the back foot, but there were playing catch up.

The laws are clear, and I have no doubt that every player on the field understood them, what they did know however was how Poite was enforcing those laws and what criteria he was using to make the distinction between a tackle (no off-side line) and a ruck (a very clear off-side line). The only possible way to find that out was to ask him directly.

And that is exactly what James Haskell did.

He might not have asked in the most efficient way, but he was clearly confused by the way the match was going, and he was very frustrated that what he saw as illegal infringement was being called as legal by the referee. He asked Poite to clarify exactly what the law was.

Instead of answering his question Poite took it upon himself to make a sarcastic remark in reply.

I don’t think anyone should need to remind him that during the game he is the sole arbiter of what is legal and what is not. And part of his job is to communicate that to the players. It is done at set pieces, it is done when one team is under pressure and repeatedly infringing, it is usually done at the breakdown. But not this time.

The conversation went on with James Haskell attempting to get clarification of how close a player had to be to be considered part of a ruck, and whether he could simply drag on Italian player into the tackle to create a ruck. Eventually Poite answered his questions, and the second both sides had the same information the tide turned.

There is more to it that this.

Haskell did exactly what you would expect of an experienced professional rugby player in a frustrating situation. He didn’t take matters into his own hands, he asked for detailed clarification. And when he didn’t get it he asked again until he did.

The most striking thing to me, second only to Poite’s seeming delight in pulling one over the England team, was that it was James Haskell that did the asking.

Haskell isn’t the captain. He isn’t even one of the vice-captains.

He is simply a back rower who has recently returned from injury, that many people say shouldn’t be in the team at all. The actual captain was standing next to him, his mouth shut, not contributing anything at all.

And so this is why I think all England fans should be celebrating James Haskell’s behaviour last weekend.

He saw a problem, he saw that the “leaders” weren’t sorting it, and he did everything in his power to resolve the situation without risking infringing the laws himself.

To my mind he put his had up for the captaincy of the team. Hartley has not been on form recently, and it is supposedly for his leadership he is being retained. Last week he didn’t show any of that at all when it really mattered.

That was left to “The Brand”

Wasps vs Gloucester – A Preview

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With the loss to Sale at the AJ Bell Stadium now behind us, it’s time to look forward to the next game. Gloucester Rugby at home at the Ricoh.

Wasp vs Gloucester

Last Season’s Loss to Gloucester

Gloucester currently sit in 9th place in the Aviva Premiership, 8 places below us, and have only won 5 games so far this season. But this is no reason for complacency. Not only are they one place above Sale who beat us last weekend, but they beat us pretty conclusively last season. As if this wasn’t enough the RBS 6 Nations is still going strong and so we will be missing Haskell, Launchbury, Hughes, and Daly. And last weekend Gloucester put in a very impressive shift to beat the reigning champions Saracens 31 points to 23.

And so this is a game we need to take very seriously indeed. We have a six point cushion at the top of the table, and short of a complete melt-down we will certainly be in the Champions Cup next season as well as the play-offs at the end of this season. But we need to do everything we can to make sure we get that home semi-final. And that means not losing games we should expect to win.

A Team of Talent

Gloucester have never been a team that travel particularly well, but it’s fair to say that they have been perennial under achievers. If they can finally harness the undoubted talent they have they could easily be a serious force to be reckoned with. Players like Charlie Sharples, James Hook, Richard Hibberd, and Billy Twelvetrees are all able to make their mark on the game, and the rest of the squad are no mugs either.

However there is no doubt that Wasps have one of the best attacking back lines in world rugby currently, and when they play well we can beat anyone.

So instead of looking to target Gloucester’s weaknesses, we should simply look to impose our own gameplan on them. That is exactly what we failed to do with Sale, and the coaches and players at Glaws will certainly have noticed and will be quietly fancying their chances.

Our Missing Players

It’s often said that the Forwards win the game, the backs decide by how much. And Wasp’s policy of selecting forwards who are mobile, elusive, and skillful does tend to make us vulnerable to teams with a big, strong, powerful pack. When we have Hughes running at full tilt, Haskell tackling anything and everything that moves, and Launchbury dominating all the breakdowns we can hold our own against pretty much any team out there, but none of them will be available for us. And our defensive leader, and attacking magician at 13 – Daly – won’t be there either.

The Back Row

Thomas Young is a fantastic jackal over the ball. The progress he showed after working with George Smith for a year was simply astonishing. But despite his undoubted skill at winning the turnover he does not yet have Smith’s experience and ability to instantly judge which balls are worth competing for and which to leave. Young tends to err more on the side of leaving the ball, and from time to time finds himself actively competing for a ball that he shouldn’t leading to being penalised.

Alex Reider has power that belies his size, and regularly gets over the gainline, but he doesn’t have Hughes ability to blast through the opposition and come out the other side at full tilt, or even Sam Jones’s cavalier disregard for his own safety in driving through the ruck taking opposition players with him.

Ashley Johnson is a fantastic ball carrier, and when he gets up to full speed there are few that can stop him, but the transition to hooker has meant developing his static power, and ball skills. This has had the unavoidable consequence of reducing his overall fitness, and slowing him down a little. He’s a good six, but he’s no Haskell.

However our front row are extremely versatile and impressive. Mullan is probably a better player in the loose than McIntyre, but Big Mac is probably a stronger scrummager. Tommy Tayloris unerring in the lineout, and a real devil over the ball. Jake Cooper-Wooley is Mullen’s perfect foil. Probably a better scrummager, but also great in the loose.

I could go on, but the fact is that if we click, we will win this game by a big margin. The pack can hold it’s own, and the back line – whoever we pick – will score tries. But only if our 9 and 10 play their part properly. Gloucester are likely to play a fast blitz defence, they will target our 9 with a fast runner, and their defensive line will likely be running fast into the second receiver channel. This will put us under pressure and force us to pass deep, and potentially kick for territory.

The way our defence has been recently means this might not be the best option for us, so we are going to need whoever is playing at 10 (and I think it is likely to be Cips) to reign in his instinct to kick long.

My Predicted Team

For me the deciding factor in this game is what combination we play in the centre. We need a 12 who is solid but able to distribute, and we need a 13 who hits like a tank and can run dangerous lines. If we get that, then our back three can be set loose to work their magic.

The back line I’d really like to see is:

9: Simpson
10: Cipriani
11: Le Roux
12: Gopperth
13: Leiua
14: Wade
15: Beale

I think that would give us the strength and solidity we need to set our World class players free.

As to the forwards, I can’t see any reason to change the pack who played against Sale, I’d just take the roasting Dai gave them at half time and give it to them before the first half.

What do you think?

Wasps vs Sale – A breakdown

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Wasps’ unbeaten run in the premiership came to an end yesterday at the AJ Bell Stadium against Sale Sharks with a 34-28 victory to the home team.

Wasps’ losing bonus point extended their lead at the top of the table to six points over second place Saracens who have lost their last two matches, but Sale continued their march to the top half of the table.

I’m not going to waste any time in the article bemoaning the missed clearly forward passes, because they were missed for both teams. I’d simply like to take a detailed look at Denny Solomona’s first try, and explain how it was expertly worked by a team that had clearly done their homework.

First let’s look at it in full.

sale1

You can see the ball is taken cleanly from the lineout and a ruck is formed further in-field. This slightly increases the pressure on the questionable Wasps’ defence. It could easily be passed in either direction meaning that the defensive line has to set in both directions. However that isn’t what is done. Sale take advantage of the fact that Wasps tend not to compete aggressively at the breakdown and get the ball out quickly. Solomona picks the ball up, runs straight through the middle, and runs is for a simple touch down underneath the posts.

At first view it seems that Sale have simply taken advantage of a gap in the defensive line and scored an opportunistic try.

I don’t think that is the case, and I’d like to explain exactly why I think this was a beautifuly worked try that had probably been practiced time and time again on the training field.

Ioane, the sale flanker runs hard into contact. The combination of his sheer power, the proximity of the try line, and the new laws regarding high tackles mean it takes two defensive players to bring him down. Sale’s 10, 12, and 7 all drive right over the ruck giving quick ball, and this is where it starts to get very interesting.

Lund positions himself over the ruck as you would expect of any decent forward. However Jennings (12) and James (10) step through and stop. As they do this you can see Thomas Young of Wasps rolling clear and attempting to re-join the defensive line. Mike Phillips runs into the ruck and directly into the back of Young. This is a pretty common tactic and is often used to try to get an obstruction call from the ref. If the defensive player doesn’t get out of the way and blocks te play it is a clear foul, so Young runs forward. However instead of going for the ball Phillips sticks with Young and pushes him to the side. Not hard, but enough for him to have to take a step, which he does.

This not only creates a small amount of space for Solomona to run directly through, but also puts Young directly inbetween Solomona who has the ball, and Ashley Johnson who is now unable to make the tackle. The two collide, Young falls to the floor and Johnson is stopped dead in his tracks.

Jennings and James have both also stopped, and almost coincidentally are right in-between Solomona and Mullen leaving him with a simple run in.

Let’s look at the play in slow motion and see it all unfold in it’s true glory.

sale2

It was a really good example of the kind of play that Wasps are vulnerable to because of the way they focus on searching for the attacking opportunity all the time, and in doing so can sometimes leave themselves spread a little wide. A team with heavy hitting players who are keeping the ball in the centre and playing for fast ball can create these opportunites. Especially when Wasps are missing Haskell, Hughes, Launchbury, Jones, and Thompson.

You could argue that what Sale did was technically against the letter of the law, but it is no worse than any other team does. And Wasps do it as much as anyone else if not more when our hard hitting forwards aren’t away or injured.

Individually Young, Reider, and Johnson are all perfectly capable of holding their own at the very top level (to the great credit of Alex Reider who has no right to be as good as he is after the short amount of time he’s been with us). But as a combination they are perhaps a little light. Perhaps a little lacking in the aggressive edge that is proving such a positive influence on the current England set-up.

Either way, Sale played a great game, thoroughly deserved the result and hopefully showed us exactly what we need to be working on if we are to put in a serious challenge for some silverware this season.