A Cinderella Story

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

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

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

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 Fly Half Issues

Danny Cipriani - Wasps Fly Half

Danny Cipriani – Wasps Fly Half

Our First Choice Fly Half

Danny Cipriani, the current Wasps Fly Half is one of the greatest talents to ever set foot on a rugby pitch.

There. I’ve said it.

That doesn’t mean he is the perfect fly half, far from it. But he does things no-one else could do. His ability to create space where there wasn’t any, his ability to put his back-line through gaps is second to none. But there are a couple of problems. The first is that he has an almost inevitable habit of messing up in a big way. Only once or twice a game, but no-one is surprised when he is charged down, or he kicks the ball straight into the back of one of his own players. Usually when we’re either about to score, or frantically defending. But these are just different aspects of the same thing. He is constantly pushing at the boundaries of what is possible, and sometimes his vision exceeds his ability.

The second issue is his kicking from the tee. It’s just not great. Don’t get me wrong it’s not terrible, but it’s not as metronomic as a team at the top of the Aviva Premiership and in the Quarter Finals of the European Champions Cup would like it to be.  

And that’s OK, because Danny Cipriani is not the only 10 we have.

Jimmy Gopperth is probably one of the most popular players in the team right now. H clearly doesn’t have Danny Cipriani’s flair, but he is everything Danny isn’t. Gopperth is a hard running, utterly fearless player. And his kicking is right up there with the best in the world at the moment.

So Wasps have played their very best with Danny Cipriani pulling the strings at 10, and Jimmy Gopperth running off him at 12 whilst also taking on the kicking duties. After all who said the fly half had to take all the kicks?

A Potential Problem?

But that in itself presents us with a bit of a problem.

If we are playing both of our dedicated 10s at the same time we have effectively removed the option to play a flashy creative back at 12. And if – heaven forbid – one of our 10s finds themselves injured we are suddenly scrambling to put together a good team that is playing where they are familiar. However there is another option.

A Potential Solution

We have another option. I don’t mean Rob Miller, even though he showed some real class when he stepped up at the last minute to cover for Danny when he was ill, I mean one of the most creative and visionary backs in the world today. Kurtley Beale.

I know it would seem that Dai Young sees him in the back three, or possibly even in the centre. But Beale is perfectly capable of playing fly half. And putting him in the 10 shirt not only allows us to rest Danny from time to time without losing any of the vision. But it also allows us to bring one of the centres who aren’t getting much game time back onto the field.

Alapati Leiua may well be leaving us at the end of the season, but there is no doubt that before his horrific run of injuries he was one of the form backs in the world. He’d turned down the All Blacks to play for his home nation of Samoa, and was setting the Southern Hemisphere alight with a fast, elusive running style that would fit perfectly into the current Wasps set up. I’d dearly love to see him running his hard lines off Beale.

And of course if Beale moves forward to 10 that frees up the full back position for Willie le Roux, who, if the rumours are to be believed is the fastest player we have. Already outpacing our lighting back line in training leaving Wade and Simpson in his dust.

I doubt it will happen unless it is forced by injury, but I’d really like to see a back line of:

9: Simpson
10: Beale
11: Bassett
12: Leiua
13: Daly
14: Wade
15: le Roux

What do you think?

The Dilemma Around Kurtley Beale

Kurtley Beale

Kurtley Beale – Once a Wasp?

Kurtley Beale

Kurtley Beale was one of the biggest signings of the year when the deal was struck for him to come to Wasps, and when he ruptured his patella tendon within hours of the deal being finalised it seemed like a disaster. But his recovery went well and he arrived in Coventry on time, and within less time than anyone could have expected made his debut and scored his first try in black and gold (Match Report).

His signing undeniably went a long way to consoling Wasps’ fans over the loss of Charles Piutau and his brother Siale who had made such a positive impression and rapidly become firm favourites. We all knew they were short term signings, but I suspect I wasn’t the only person who, deep down inside, truly hoped they’d choose to stay. But move on they did, and the addition of Kurtley Beale meant it wasn’t that big a blow.

However because of first his contractual commitments, and second the demands of recovering from a potentially career ending injury meant he wasn’t going to be available until later in the season, so for a while we were going to have to make do with neither Charles Piutau, nor Kurtley Beale.

Thankfully for Wasps we have a player who could easily be described as one of the most under-rated backs in the Premiership. Rob Miller.

Without a world class star at 15 Miller took the opportunity to prove his worth. His solidity under the high ball, his aggressive running, his offloads, and his kicking out of hand meant he rapidly took all the urgency out of the wait for Beale to arrive. It didn’t really seem to matter. And with Jimmy Gopperth able to drop back to cover 15 should it be needed, and in one memorable game the youngster Piers O’Connor taking the 15 shirt to allow Miller to play at 10 it seemed our stock of fullbacks was at an all time high.

But then it was announced that Elliot Daly was expected to make the most of his England career playing at 15, leading to the suggestion that maybe he should play there for Wasps, and as if that wasn’t enough Willie le Roux finally arrived from South Africa to start his time at Wasps.

An Enviable Dilemma

So now Dai Young is in the somewhat enviable position of having to choose between Wasps’ own successful fullback in Miller, two of the best fullbacks in the world in Willie le Roux and Kurtley Beale, and the precocious talent of Daly.

Of course Beale can also play at 10, Daly can play at 11, 12, 13, 14, or 15, Le Roux can play at 11, 14, or 15, and both Miller and Gopperth can seeming play anywhere they feel like, so it isn’t that big a problem. The difficult thing is deciding who to put where. Can any team in the world seriously decide to leave out a player of the calibre of any of the potential options?

And if, for the sake of argument, we do decide to play le Roux at 15, do we then play Beale in the centre? And if we do that do we leave out Daly or Gopperth? How about the equally impressive Eastmond? Perhaps we bump Gopperth to 10, but then we leave out Cipriani.

Maybe the answer is to put le Roux on the wing, but then do we leave out Wade? Surely not. But Halai has proved his worth time and time again over the last couple of seasons, and Bassett has made some seriously impressive improvements in his game and would be a clear starter in almost any other team, so which one of them do we drop?

And that doesn’t even begin to discuss the relative merits of players like Macken, Leiua, or Armitage, all of whom could and have slotted in seamlessly when needed to.

The Rumour Mill

So when the rumour mill started up recently saying that Beale was likely to be leaving Wasps at the end of the season I suspect I wasn’t the only person who wasn’t desperately disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love him to stay, a player of Kurtley Beale’s ability is always going to benefit a team. He’s got a definite x-factor on the pitch and the ability to change the game in a flash. But if he did decide that moving to the UK was an experiment that hadn’t worked out for him I don’t think it would be the end of the world.

I for one wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to move back to Australia. It must have been a hugely traumatic time for him, moving to the other side of the world on the back of a serious injury. And a move that was definitely not supported by the rugby establishment in Australia. Michael Cheika has made it very clear that he did not approve, that he thought it was a mistake for Beale personally, and a damaging move for the Wallabies. That can’t have made it any easier for him, and if he does move back I’d put the blame firmly at Cheika’s door.

I don’t agree that it is a bad move for Beale to play here. I think broadening his horizons, experiencing a different style of play and a new tournament can only benefit him as a player, and getting to know and play regularly against a lot of internationals he will face in the gold shirt of Australia can’t be a bad thing. I think that all of Cheika’s comments have been based on his personal issues with not having access to Beale whenever he wanted it. Not having him in Australia can only have made it harder for Cheika to manage the international squad. But whilst he has to put his own job first, going out of his way to disrupt the career and earnings of one of his star players in order to make his own job easier is selfish at best. Kurtley Beale’s injury is an abject lesson that even the best players could end up unable to ever play again at any moment. And so sabotaging what was reported in the press as the biggest salary in world rugby is an outrageous thing to do.

That being said, it’s also being reported that Bath are also interested in signing Beale. I know it makes me as selfish and subjective as I have just accused Cheika of being, but I think that would be an unfair decision. It was Wasps that brought him to the UK and supported him through the treatment and rehabilitation for his injury, and if he then moves to another UK club within half a season I’d be upset. But not because I think Wasps will suffer noticeably.

With le Roux, Miller, and all the other embarrassment of riches we have in our back line I think we’ll be just fine.