In the aftermath of such a disappointing loss it’s very easy to react emotionally, but lets take a look at what happened with Wasps gameplan against Saracens and try to stay objective.
Wasps Gameplan against Saracens
Firstly lets look at why it was that Wasps seemed to abandon their traditional gameplan and mimic the kicking game that Saracens do so well.
To do that we need to understand what Wasps’ standard game plan is. In a nutshell it is based around fast ball coming out through the 9-10 axis to either one of the heavy hitting, line breaking forwards such as Hughes or Haskell, or to one of the fast, evasive backs such as Daly or Wade coming off his wing. The fact that there are always several options and the opposition cannot predict which the 10 is going to chose force defenses to become stretched and either leave gaps to be exploited, or overlaps for the outside backs to run through.
However against Saracens we did not do this. There are a few reasons for that.
Firstly the whole system relies on a solid defence, and a highly effective rucking strategy. The defensive leader is Ben Jacobs, who has been the squads greatest unsung hero so far this season. The rucking strategy is based around the individual talents, leadership qualities, and dominating presence of George Smith. That neither of these players were available for selection was always going to cause things to be done differently.
Alapati Leiua is a fantastic player, but he is not a like for like replacement for Jacobs, even if he wasn’t coming back from a long term injury. He is a hard hitting, evasive strike runner whose talents would be better served as a replacement for Daly, or even on the wing. To put him in place of Jacobs is always going to change the way the defence works.
Thomas Young is a gifted back row forward. He is fast and is probably the one player we have who appraoches the game the way Smith does. But Smith is one of the most wily and experienced players still taking the field in the entire world, and for all his natural ability Young is one of the least experienced players in the squad. He isn’t abrasive, he has no aura and reputation to give the opposition pause, and I suspect he cares a lot more than Smith does about picking up penalties.
As if this wasn’t enough we are still missing Christian Wade, who, for all his supposed faults and frailties is one of the most devastating try scorers in the Premiership and has the abilty to run through otherwise completely solid defences.
So the standard game plan for Wasps was never going to be possible. We were not going to be in a position to create the platform we need to make it happen.
So why did we choose to mimic Saracen’s gameplan?
Simply put, however much it might seem that way, we didn’t.
Saracens game plan is based around constant forwards momentum and direct pressure. Every kick is chased hard. Chargedowns are common, and the speed of their defensive line is amazing to watch. The goal is that the constant pressure eventually tells, and something fails leading to a try. A harsh way to describe it is “parasitic”, but “opportunistic” is probably more accurate and fairer.
With Wasps’ defence and rucking game both being less effective there was little chance we were ever going to break through the oncoming defense of Saracens, and trying was only going to lead to more errors. So if you can’t go through them, you have to go over them.
Rather than attempting to create gaps for the strike runners in the team to exploit, the game plan was to use the momentum of the oncoming defensive blitz against them by kicking the ball over them and forcing them into retreat. Their back three would suddenly find themselves under pressure with little support meaning they would either be forced to kick for touch giving us the line out, or make an error of some sort leading to a penalty or scrummage.
To the casual observer the two game plans look very similar, but they are intrinsically different in nature. One (Saracens) is a smothering blanket of pressure against the entire opposition, the other (Wasps) is a sudden punch through and sprint.
It’s a great theory, but it is a style of gameplay Sarries are very familiar with and very happy to deal with. Their back three are extremely solid under the high ball, and are prefectly able to return the kicks as quickly as they receive them. They work together to relieve the pressure, and instead of becoming isolated and acting rashly they simply turn things around and do the very same back to us.
Our back three are not picked for their ability under the high ball, for their solidity, and unflappability under pressure. Their primary purpose is not defence, it is attack. They are the fast evasive runners we rely on when playing our primary system. So it is no surprise that when forced to play a different game that focuses not on their strengths, but on the opposition’s they don’t do it as well.
There were brief moments in the game when the strategy seemed to be working, and if the matchday squad had been selected differently it may well have worked. But a lot of individual performances let us down, not through any fault of their own, but by being asked to do things that did not play to their individual strengths. But that is a discussion for another article…
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