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.

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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

Wasps vs Sale – A breakdown

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.

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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.

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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.

Wasps vs Tigers – What Wasps Did Right

After last weeks disappointing loss to Gloucester it was nice to see Wasps bounce back with a solid win against their old rivals Leicester Tigers.  It was a very different game to watch, and I thought it might be interesting to look at what Wasps did right in this game that they failed to in the last one.

Dai Young often says that we need to win the right to play the game we want to play, and it sounds like a silly soundbite, the kind of thing that Directors of Rugby all across the country say because they have to say something, but that isn’t Dai’s way.  And when we look at what Wasps did right against Leicester you can see exactly what it is he is talking about.  We did win the right to play the game the way we wanted to.  Let’s see how.

Here is the first try.

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On first viewing it is easy to simply write this off as a lovely bit of play by Charles Piutau, and in some ways that would be fair.  It was indeed a lovely bit of play by him.  It was a nice mix of deft footwork, powerful driving, and understanding how to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses.  But that is simply looking at how we play.  What is more interesting is how we earned the right for Charles to make his run for the line. To do that, we need to go back further and see what the team as a whole did.

What Wasps Did Right

The try started with a Wasps lineout on the Tigers’ 22. Instead of what is rapidly becoming the almost inevitable rolling maul Johnson throws to the rear of the line, it is taken cleanly and instantly passed out to Frank Halai who darts to the centre of the field, sees there is nothing on and takes the contact. He could easily have run across the field and tried to find his way throgh the defence which was drifting nicely. But he didn’t. He knew he had plenty of support and so created a point in the centre of the field that tied in defenders and allowed Robson to get the ball moving again very quickly.

what wasps did right

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It’s a fairly standard way of disrupting the defensive patterns of the opposition.  As long as you win the ruck and the ball comes out quickly then you have drawn defenders in to what in this case was the centre of the field in order to have fewer of them further out.

What happens next is where it starts to get interesting.

The next player (I can’t see for sure who this is, I suspect Gopperth as this is something he does very well indeed) takes the pass cleanly and runs straight at the defence.  This could easily be another ruck, he could be looking to break through the line – he certainly has the power to – so the defence cannot ignore it.  He draws in two tacklers, but instead of simply taking the contact and recycling the ball he offloads directly into the hands of Ashley Johnson who is now running at some pace onto his right shoulder.  As PossiblyGopperth has tied in two defenders that only leaves one to stop Johnson.  Anyon who has seen him play knows that was never going to happen.  It takes another tackler to bring him down, but by the time that happens he has take the ball forward 11 yards.  This is where we start to see what Wasps did right.

He goes to ground knowing full well he has support and places the ball for Robson to take.  James Cannon and Jake Cooper-Wooley are with him, but instead of simply blocking at the ruck they drive straight over the top of him and take out the defender who was coming in to the ruck to compete for the ball.

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As they do this Cooper-Wooley keeps driving and Cannon slows.  This effectively blocks any defender on their left from coming across to compete for the ball which Robson has already got out.  Cannon even holds out his hand to stop the Tigers 8 from coming across.  This is actually pretty close to blocking, but as it all happens so quickly and as part of what might have briefly been a ruck it isn’t enough to stop play.

The first contact took out two of the defenders in return for one of ours..  As they had made the tackle and were on the ground they are not allowed to play the ball until they have got back up to their feet.  It’s worth noting Robson’s positioning here.  None of this works if he isn’t where he needs to be, and invariably he is.  He is exactly where he needs to be in order to get the ball back out quickly.

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The drive takes out the next two defenders, and effectively blocks the way for any other supporting players to join the defence.

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You can see quite clearly now that we have taken out more of their players than we have used to take them out which should have the effect of creating an overlap further down the field.  You can also see that the tacklers haven’t even managed to get halfway up before Robson is funnelling the ball down the line.

He does exactly the same as he did last time and gets the ball to the hands of one of the runners.  This time it is definitely Gopperth who once again runs straight.  He is within a few yards of the line and there is no way he isn’t going over if the defence doesn’t stop him.  So they have to commit and again he draws two tacklers – circled in red.  The second they commit he has created a 3 on 1 to his right.  Not only that, but those three are Charles Piutau, Rob Miller, and Christian Wade.  The single defender has a decision to make.

what wasps did right

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He makes the wrong decision.  He goes wide to try to stop the ball going to Wade and Piutau takes the offload. His incredible skill made the fact that he had two players running support lines irrelevant, but should he not have been able to sit the first tackler down, and get low enough to touch the ball down all he had to do was offload.

You can see how a lovely try that could easily make its way into a highlight reel for Charles was in fact created by the entire team, forwards and backs.  The team earned the right to play the ball.  And because of that they did play the ball.  They did it again and again, and came away with a solid win and another 5 points.

Wasps vs Gloucester – An Analylsis

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For the last month or two Wasps have been the in-form team in the premiership. Yesterday however they played Gloucester at Kingsholm, and for the first time in seven games Wasps lost. I thought it might be interesting to look at what happened during Wasps vs Gloucester and see if we can work out what went wrong for Wasps.

Wasps vs Gloucester – What went wrong?

There are clearly a number of factors that played a part. Firstly the match took place on a rest weekend during the Six Nations. Players from the England squad were retained and not available to play, but players from the other nations were able to be selected. This hit Wasps harder than it did Gloucester. And the injury list for Wasps was quite spectacular with Festuccia, Launchbury, Gaskell, Haskell, Young, Thompson, Simpson, Leiua, Jacobs, and Masi all unavailable for one reason or another. However this is not the reason Wasps lost. Most of those players were unavailable for the other recent matches where Wasps won against some of the top teams in Europe.

Due to Wasps’ preference for Sunday games playing away at Kingsholm meant we had a six day turnaround. This meant players who had given their all in the win over Harlequins the week before had a day less to recover and get back to match fitness. Add this to the fact that we are at the tail end of an extremely busy season with little chance to rest then you could argue that our players would be tired. But it is the same season for Gloucester, so I don’t think this is the reason for the result.

Kingsholm is a notoriously difficult place to go to and come away with a win. Gloucester have always been good at creating the fortress mentality, and the crowd are loud, utterly one sided, and very close to the action. However we’ve won at the RDS in Dublin, We’ve won at The Rec in Bath, we’ve won at Allianz Park, and we’ve won in Franklins Gardens, in fact our away record has been extremely impressive. So this particular Wasps vs Gloucester result was not down to the fact that it was an away game.

Wasp vs Gloucester

A bit of a Mudbath

We know Wasps play best on a hard pitch. The result at Allianz Park is testament to that. Our own hybrid surface is as good as we can make it and still be acceptable for Coventry City Football Club to play on. The surface at Kingsholm was not the worst we’ve played on, but it was pretty bad. The grass was sparse, and the ground was soft and slippery. It didn’t give traction to our forwards, and didn’t allow for the evasive footwork our back line are rapidly becoming famous for. But however bad the surface was, it was worse at the Rec. So we can’t blame the loss on the ground itself.

In fact I don’t think it is even fair to say that Wasps lost to Gloucester. I think it would be more accurate to say that Gloucester won. They came to the game with a specific game plan, and executed it well. They denied us the space and time we needed to play the game the way we wanted to. Let’s take a look at how they managed it.

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The first thing to say, is that Gloucester have always been a brilliant team just waiting to happen. Players like Kvesic, Sharples, and Hook are amongst the best out there and once the team gelled they would always be a very small step away from some fantastic performances. They came out of the gates at full sprint and didn’t let up for the whole game. But it wasn’t just forward domination in the set piece, and rapid defence that won the game for them. Toulon did a very similar thing, and Wasps put 26 clear points on them.

Gloucester knew that Wasps’ game plan consisted of recycling the ball as quickly as possible and creating confusion in the defence by mixing the hard running of our forwards (and indeed centres) with the incredible pace of our backs.  When the ball is passed out of the ruck there are always multiple possibilities – It may be going down the line, it may be going direct to the hands of a back row at speed, it may be picked from the ground and run straight down the middle. The defence cannot know until it happens. Each runner goes down their own line, and in doing so ties in a defender.  Even without the ball they still run at the defenders. It is about as close to blocking as a team can get without actually infringing, and it works well. Gloucester turned the tables this time.

It was clear that the cherry and whites were not seeing the ruck as a time to reset the defensive line. They treated it as a genuine opportunity to get the ball. Every time a Wasps player hit the ground in a tackle there were multiple defenders there vying for the ball before the supporting players could reach them. They drove over the ball multiple times to create the turnover, and when they couldn’t manage this they created space for their back row to steal the ball. If that didn’t work, and the ball stayed with Wasps, it did so more slowly than we wanted.

Look at this photo. This was one of the first collisions of the game. You can clearly see the Wasps player on the ground with three defenders in place dominating that breakdown. There was one supporting player, and by the time we had enough numbers to compete, the ball was lost.

 

Wasps vs Gloucester

Outnumbered in the Ruck 3-1

Even when this didn’t happen our players were harassed and bullied. It is a pretty common tactic for a defender to target the scrum half at a ruck. To run hard at them and up the pressure a little in order to try and force the error. Gloucester did this masterfully. They ran hard and fast at Robson and made it clear to him that if he did not get the ball away instantly he was going to be flattened. Not only does this increase the likelihood of a mistake, but it slows down the scrum half getting to the next breakdown.

In this picture we can see that Robson has got the ball away down the line (arrowed), but the Gloucester player is all over him (circled). It was arguably playing the man without the ball, but no more so than our dummy runners do when things are clicking for us.

Wasps vs Gloucester

Twelvetrees meets an old mate

Gloucester had clearly done their homework and had identified that the two most dangerous runners in the Wasps team were Hughes and Wade. They took specific steps to negate the threat offered by these players.

The standard defensive structure is the drift, which essentially allows a flat defensive line to target the inside of the attacker forcing them out and along the line towards the touchline which acts as an extra defender. For most teams this narrows the options of the attack, but for Wasps this plays into our hands, as it forces the ball to one of the most dangerous and fast attacking players in the game today. Gloucester did not utilise the drift defence. Ironically they used a variation of the Blitz defence introduced by Wasps some ten years ago. This effectively has the defenders running fast at the attacking line and targeting the outside shoulders in order to stop the ball going wide. Gloucester did this beautifully well. When this works it contains the ball in the centre of the field and allows the defenders to get numbers in the ruck (see above). But from our perspective this allows players like Hughes to run hard and fast at the defence. If they get it wrong he is likely to run straight over the top of them just as he did to George Ford in the game against Bath earlier in the year.

However Gloucester were fully aware of this risk. They negated it in two ways.

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They abandoned the traditional flat defensive line, and created a wedge formation. This allowed them to get up to the ball quickly. It cut off the pass down the line and allowed them to be able to use the second tactic against Hughes. The gang tackle.

Wasps vs Gloucester

Wasps’ Flat Defensive Line

There are a number of different ways to tackle a man with the ball, and as a general rule none of them work one on one against someone like Hughes. He has the strength and power to break through most tackles. The best bet is a chop tackle. Take the legs as low as possible and force him to the ground. However this allows the tackled player to recycle the ball quickly. The gang tackle involves two defenders. The first hits low as in the chop tackle, but the second comes in higher to secure the ball.  If the rest of the defense is there quickly then it is a great way to steal the ball.  If they aren’t and the suporting attackers are there first it ties a defender in and makes the next defence harder.  Because of Gloucester’s line speed it worked beautifully.

If we look at the next two pictures you can see the shape of the defensive line targeting the spot where the hard running forward – usually Hughes, sometimes Johnson, or indeed any of our forwards – is going to be. This stopped them getting any momentum and breaking the line. It cut off the pass down the line, and when coupled with the runner targeting Robson invariably lead to a very predictable result. Wasps fail to get over the gainline, they struggle to compete at the breakdown, and the ball gets turned over.

Wasps vs Gloucester

Cutting off the pass down the line

Wasps vs Goucester

Targeting the Receiver at speed

Wade’s try was a very interesting moment. It showed what a wonderful player he is to have on your team. It was one of only a handful of opportunities that came his way, and he beat a number of defenders to score it, but, it was entirely down to a failure of the Gloucester team to maintain the structure they were aiming for.

Wasps vs Gloucester

A structural failure

The player circled had failed to get forward quickly enough for the modified blitz to be effective. He has either been fooled by the player with the ball, or simply was not quick enough forward. Either way you can see he has put the brakes on in order to try to maintain some form of defensive structure, and in doing so has slowed the whole defence enough for Wasps to get the ball down the line into the hands of Wade. The rest is history. It was a tiny margin, but that is often all that a team of the calibre of Wasps needs. It shows conclusively that Wasps were still doing what they have done for the last few months. But that Gloucester had, up to that point, managed to contain it.

The failed try for Wasps earlier in the game showed exactly how it should have worked for Gloucester. Wasps were putting them under pressure inside their own 22 and the ball had gone rapidly down the line. The defensive player circled had trusted that the man on his left was covering the outside shoulder of the man with the ball and so was running hard at the next player down the line. As soon as he was far enough forward to prevent the pass he turned in and the Gloucester defence hit the ruck. That time they conceded a penalty allowing Wasps to get on to the board. But if they were using the drift all that would have happened is that the ball would have gone to Wade who would have likely dotted it down in the corner.

Wasps vs Gloucester

In the right place at the right time

As a Wasps supporter it was a disappointing result, but as a lifelong rugby fan it was a beautiful game to watch. Gloucester played a brilliant tactical game and effectively cut Wasps out of all the things they wanted to do. The irony is that they did so by modifying the system of defence Shaun Edwards introduced to Wasps that allowed them to dominate the Premiership. It is high risk, but offers high reward if you get it right. They targeted the most dangerous players extremely effectively, and dominated Wasps from the beginning to the end.

The risk with the Blitz that Gloucester used is that it is possible to chip the ball over the defensive line and then carry the attack past them leaving them in disarray. This is what Wasps managed to do to Toulon at the Ricoh in November. It is one of the things Ruaridh Jackson does better than Jimmy Gopperth (go watch his try against Touon). Jimmy is a more dangerous runner, of that there is no doubt, and he is a better place kicker too. But perhaps, if Jackson had been brought on once it was clear how Gloucester were playing, Wasps may have managed to salvage something more than a losing bonus point from that game.

Either way Gloucester slowed us down, dominated the breakdown, and defended in such a way as to cut our best attackers out of the game.  It was a masterful performance, and a real example of what Gloucester are capable of.  They need to show somw consistency now and  now we need to move on to the next game against Leicester at home.

A Record Win against Saracens

Wasps Record Win Against Saracens

The Amazing Piutau Brother Play Together Professionally for the First Time

On Saturday Wasps managed a record win against Saracens, beating them 23-64. A margin of 41 points. In the joy and celebrations it has been said that no-one could have predicted that. To some degree I agree, but part of me would like to suggest that some of us knew it was possible. Lets look back a few weeks.

A Disappointing Loss

On the 2nd of January we played Sale Sharks in a howling gale, with rain beating down on us and we lost. We fumbled the ball, we slipped off tackles, we kicked to try to win territory, and ultimately we lost. At the time I said that this was down to the fact that our natural game was always going to suffer on soft pitches, in the rain. That Wasps perform best on a hard surface, with a dry ball.

Specifically I said “The Return is not until the end of March. The weather is likely to be better, injured players are likely to be back in the team, the ground is likely to be harder and better suited to running. I predict a very different result then”

And

Send us to France, especially the south where the weather is better and the pitch more suited to our natural game and you will be amazed what we can do.”

A Record Win Against Saracens

It seems that going to the South of France was not necessary, though we came damn close against Toulon. All we needed was to have a few of our injured players back, and play on a decent surface in the dry. Just like we did at Allianz Park against the league leaders, and favourites for the European Champions Cup Saracens.

Now it could be said that it was just one of those days when everything works out well. When Lady luck plays into your hands, and when the ball just seems to go where you want it. But I do not believe that for one second, this record win against Saracens was engineered by the coaches.  It was no fluke.

When we last payed Saracens, it was at home, on our own hybrid pitch. A surface that by it’s design is closer to natural grass than the fully artificial surface at Allianz Park. That makes it more susceptible to the weather. Excess rain will soften the root mass, and however much drainage you try to ensure is present you will and up with less purchase. Synthetic tuerf does not suffer this way. It retains its structure regardless of the weather in the run up to the match. It gives heavy strike runners like Hughes, Johnson, and the revelation that is Siale Piutau exactly the surface they need to generate real traction and drive forwards. Not only that but it allows the fast evasive runners like Daly, Wade, and Charles Piutau to get up to speed quickly, to have a secure platform for evasive side steps and genuine pace.

Look at Wade’s break for the first try. Robson chips the ball forwards from the back of a scrum and Wade races down the touchline outpacing every single Saracens player. He slows slightly to pick up the ball, and despite the attentions of both Rhodes and Bosch manages to gain a few extra metres before going down on the five metre line. Wasps take advantage of the fact that his run has drawn the defending line closer and get the ball down the line quickly for Charles Piutau to score. Would this have been possible on grass? Probably not in the rain. Not only would it have been harder for Wade to get up to speed, but it would have been unlikely he’d be able to take the ball in on the run, and then the attentions of Rhodes would likely have stopped him in his tracks.

If you think Wade making a few metres in the contact was impressive then we need to look at the build up to Hughes’s try to see exactly what a good surface can do for a solid, hard running back row. Myall has crashed over the gainline and taken the ball into contact. Thomas Young steps into the ruck to prevent the defence driving over the ball, sees a gap and reaches down with his back hand , picks the ball and run direct for the line. In the process he bounces both Vunisa and Du Plessis. He sets the tone for Johnson to drive over him and gain even more metres, and then Robson slings the ball out for a speeding Hughes to burst over the line for yet another score.

Thomas Young has been a real gem. He started the season as an anonymous third choice back rower, and is now emulating George Smith in a way that has lead many to ask whether he’s Welsh of English registered. England currently have no “Jackal”, but at the moment Wasps have two of the best. One with the experience and wiliness of years, and one with the fire and enthusiasm of youth.

It’s hard to isolate any one thing that Wasps did in order to win so conclusively, they did so much right. The rucked hard when it mattered, the slowed the ball down when the opposition had it. The didn’t commit defenders unnecessarily, they ran hard and fast onto the ball to hit the gain line at speed. The ran beautiful support lines, and they believed in themselves. Hughes did exactly the same as Young for the last try, but he did it inside our 10m line and made well over 20m before offloading to Robson who had made a huge amount of ground in order to be in exactly the right place for the offload.  Any one of them could have been Man of the Match.  Reider dominating the defending champions in his second ever Premiership game.  Rowlands making his debut for the first team and showing that we didn’t miss Haskell.  Robson showing he is Simmo’s equal.  Gopperth staking a claim to be the form 10 in the Premiership. Smith showing he is still World Class.  McIntyre dominating one of the most feared front rows in the Premiership and then ripping the ball out of the breakdown like an international back rower.   Daly nailing a 57m penalty.  Each and every player was immense, and played as part of a team.

Wasps are definitely the team of the moment. They are managing to play a fast paced, running game that is beautiful to watch. They are finding the form they haven’t had since the glory days of ten years ago. They are emulating the best teams in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is giving them some amazing wins. If the weather stays fine, and the natural grass starts to harden up to the level of Sarries’ artificial pitch then maybe the record win against Saracens will not be the only one.

Now all we need to do is persuade the FC to let Coventry City Football Club play on an artificial pitch.

Wasps vs Sharks – What Went Wrong?

Wasps vs Sharks – The Weather

Yesterday saw the first Wasps vs Sharks game of the season.  It did not go the way we hoped. It would be easy to suggest that the weather was the issue. The rain hammered down, the ground was muddly and even with studded boots getting any purchase was problematic, the ball was slick and at times almost impossible to hold on to. But suggesting that fails to take account of the most important issue.

Wasps vs Sharks

Photo: Richard Lane/Richard Lane Photography. Sale Sharks v Wasps. Aviva Premiership. 02/01/2016. Wasps’ Jimmy Gopperth attacks.

Both teams played on the same pitch, at the same time, in the same weather. Every negative consequence for Wasps, was exactly the same for Sale. And lets be honest here, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it was raining in England in January. So lets look and see if we can see why the Wasps team that turned up at the AJ Bell stadium in Salford was so far adrift of the team that destroyed Toulon, Leinster, and even Bath.

Wasps have a number of incredible players who can change the way a game is playing out. Wade, Daly and Simpson have blistering pace, Haskell and Johnson are hard hitting ball carriers, and Hughes is a force of nature who has set the premiership alight with his direct, juggernaut like play.

The way Wasps pry apart defences is by combining attacking patterns with dummy runners so the opposition never know whether they are going to have to commit several defenders to stop Hughes, spread wide to stop Daly cutting outside, or drop back to try to cut Wade off before he races through them. There are a couple of reasons this did not happen with Wasps vs Sale.

Firstly both Hughes and Wade were injured. It’s hard to overestimate the effect these players have on the team. They regularly make something of nothing. They nullify the entire defensive structure of the opposition, and they carry the rest of the team with them when they do. They make Jacobs’ solidity in defence a weapon. They make Piutau’s dancing sidestep a weapon, they make Simpson’s fast ball a weapon. They make everything the entire team does a weapon that can put the game away. And when they aren’t there the whole team is a little worse off.

But they are only two players.

The rain makes it harder to hold on to the ball (18 handling errors is clear proof of that) but that isnt a surprise. Every professional rugby player knows that. You have to change your game to compensate, and that is where it all went wrong.

The fraction of a second it takes to make sure you have a decent grip on a slick ball is a fraction of a second the opposition defence can use to pressure you. If you dont take that time you lose the ball. Simpson who is so terrifying in the dry suddenly slows to the pace of a normal human being in the wet, either that or he fumbles the ball. Normally solid forwards who can take a contact, offload on the way to the ground and get up again without an issue suddenly spill the ball in contact. You cannot brace yourself for a big hit and also hold the ball securely. Haskell made the decision to secure the ball and so looked ineffectual in the contact. Jones barrelled through the contact and the ball popped out of his hands time and time again.

So if you cannot run the ball, and you cannot pass the ball down the line to exploit overlaps what are you left with?

Kicking.

And we know how that ends for Wasps.

Our kicking game is poor, because it is not our natural game. Not only do you have to be pin point accurate, but you also need luck to be on your side. By it’s very nature a rugby ball is unpredictable, you cannot know how it is going to bounce on a long kick. You can try to influence it, but half an inch rotation can make the difference between a beautiful kick to touch and a ball going dead.

Jimmy Gopperth plays a better kicking game than Ruaridh Jackson based on the evidence so far this season, but it is not his strong point. He pushes kicks further than he probably should. Also when the game is not going his way he closes down. He runs more, he kicks for territory more. He takes it upon himself to try to control the game rather than trying to bring the rest of the team back into the game. To be honest it is less dangerous than Jackson trying harder and harder to make something happen and giving opportunities to the opposition. But it is not enjoyable to watch, and forces the team into a style of gameplay that ignores their strengths and focuses on their weaknesses.

So where did it go wrong for Wasps vs Sharks?

It went wrong because we have a team that is brilliant when they are all playing, when they can run the ball, and it is dry. We have a team that is designed for fast flowing rugby on hard pitches. We have a squad with certain players who are irreplaceable.

Lose those players and we are weaker. Force us to play on a soft pitch and we are weaker, force us to play a game based around kicking and we are weaker. Put all those things together and it is no surprise we failed to perform as well as many of us hoped.

Wasps vs Sharks – The Return is not until the end of March. The weather is likely to be better, injured players are likely to be back in the team, the ground is likely to be harder and better suited to running. I predict a very different result then. Sale beat us by less than a converted try, we will beat them by a minimum of 10 when they come to us.

If you needed more proof that this was the case then look at Wasps’ record in Europe. It is often commented on that we always do surprisingly well playing away in whichever European Cup we happen to be in. Except in Ireland of course. Send us to France, especially the south where the weather is better and the pitch more suited to our natural game and you will be amazed what we can do.

Roll on Toulon.

Do you agree? Discuss it here.