Wasps vs Gloucester – A Preview

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?

My team for Worcester Warriors

Wasps vs Worcester WarriorsAfter such a hard fought win against one of the best teams in Europe it is hard to force ourselves to turn back to the Premiership, especially when we have already secured our place in the Champions Cup next year (probably) and likely managed to reach the play-offs for the first time in what seems like an age. But putting aside the excitement is exactly what we need to do in order to concentrate on the next game. There is no new silverware gracing the trophy cabinet just yet, and if we take our foot off the gas then there won’t be.

The next game is against Worcester Warriors, and it would be very easy to write it off as being an easy win. Worcester are sitting right at the bottom of the table, and whilst they are likely safe from relegation it would be extremely easy to assume it will be an easy win. That would be a big mistake.

We are without a doubt the form team in the Northern Hemisphere right now. We have dispatched Saracens, Toulon, Leinster, Saints, Quins, and now, by the skin of our teeth, Chiefs. Complacency would be an easy trap to fall in to, a trap we need to avoid. Firstly, we don’t have the comfort of playing at home, and whilst our away record has been better this year than for an long long time the games against Newcastle, and especially Gloucester should serve as a warning that it can still be a significant factor.

On top of that there is the fact that Worcester are actually a very dangerous team who have beaten Saints, Falcons, Sale sharks, Quins, Gloucester and Irish. They have pushed others very close, and have some top level players who provide a very real threat. And that is why we shouldn’t be looking to put out a weaker team than we need to. Every point is valuable, even at the top of the table, and we need to keep momentum going into the next few games.

Even if we reach the finals of both competitions there are only 7 games left in the season, and so resting players is not strictly necessary, unless of course there are knocks or minor injuries. The depth of quality we have mean we are able to provide a little rotation, and the fact that many of our best players have had time off recently , either away with the International squads, or due to injuries, mean that we can, and should be putting out a pretty impressive squad to face Worcester Warriors.

In the front row I’d likely start McIntyre, who has proved his worth time and again pushing Mullan for the starting berth. Festuccia as hooker, and Cooper-Wooley on the other side. At the start of the season it would have seemed outrageous to be sad that we couldn’t start Gaskell or Myall, but due to injury that is the case so I’d have Launchbury and Davies in the starting line up. The back row is a little more flexible, with real dilemmas as to who should be starting. I suspect that Haskell could do with another week before subjecting his healing wounds to the impact of another game, so I’d have Young in his place. Hughes has been immense all season, but I’d like to see Jones get the starting berth if he is back to fitness in order to try and get a bit of match time in in case we need him later in the season. On the other side it would be tempting to start Smith again, but if anyone needs a brief respite it is him, and so I would start Reider, who has shown enough form and ability to make it into the starting line up of most teams.

I’d start Simpson at scrum half, before his injury he was without a doubt the form 9 in the Premiership, and whilst Robson has shown himself to be his equal I’d like to see him given a little rest. At Fly Half Gopperth has proved his weight in gold, with his coolness under pressure winning the game for us last week, but Jackson has never really done anything wrong, and provided his own moments of magic earlier in the season. Perhaps his kicking isn’t quite as good, but it is certainly good enough.

The centres are where things prove to be a little tricky. The Piutau brothers have been astonishingly good working together at 12 and 13, but then so were Ben Jacobs and Elliot Daly earlier in the season. Its a hard call to make, but if Jacobs is fit I’d start him at 12, and Daly at 13. Halai and Wade are clear choices for the wings, and Miller would be the best full back we’ve had for an awful long time if we didn’t also have Charles Piutau.

So my choice of team for this weekend against Worcester Warriors would be:

McIntyre
Festuccia
Cooper-Wooley
Launchbury
Davies
Reider
Young
Jones
Simpson
Jackson
Halai
Jacobs
Daly
Wade
Miller

With a bench of

Mullan
Johnson
Cittadini
Cannon
Smith
Hampson
Lozowski
C Piutau

What do you think? Can we take our foot off the gas, or do we need to hit this one hard and make sure of as many points as we can get?

Wasps vs Newcastle Falcons – Preview

Newcastle Falcons

17 England Caps and 2285 Premiership Points to his name – Write him off at your peril

It is a very interesting, and lets face it, enjoyable time to be a Wasps supporter. The team is playing as well, if not better than the have in a long long time. We have a stunning nine wins from our last eleven games across all competitions, and four out of our last five wins have been bonus point wins with no less than 27 tries in those five wins.

Everyone says Wasps are the form team of the Premiership, and by pretty much any metric you choose to measure us against they are right. And it has been going on long enough now that the dark days of looming bankruptcy and relegation battles seem a very long time ago indeed. Wasps are riding the crest of a wave, and that worries me.

The general chatter is that we are fully expected to carry on scoring tries for fun and to do the business against Newcastle Falcons this weekend. There is even talk on the fan forums about letting our big name players have a week’s rest.

This, in my opinion, would be a huge mistake.

I’ll explain why.

When this season’s form started, it did so in a patchy way. We’d lurch between stunning wins (Leinster and Toulon anyone?) and disappointing losses (Chiefs, Bath, Toulon away?). You’d be hard pushed to say whether our current run really started with the win against Saints at Franklins Gardens, or with the St Valentine’s day massacre where we demolished Saracens at Allianz Park. There are arguments in favour of both, but the game that separates them was a lacklustre performance at home against, you guessed it, Newcastle Falcons. We nicked a win by a single point.

Maybe it was just a blip? Perhaps that game was the exception that proves the rule? We’d have to look at the last season to find out. Admittedly we weren’t playing quite so well, but when we last travelled to the frozen wastelands of the North we were lucky to leave with a draw. To find a resounding win you have to go back to September 2014 when Tom Varndell and Andy Goode gave us a bonus point win.

Varndell is long gone, and whether you are happy or sad about it there is no changing it. And Goode currently plays for, yes, you guessed it again, Newcastle Falcons. He came out of retirement to help them with their injury crisis, and has proved yet again that he has a brilliant rugby brain, and an ability to read the game second to none. This weekend will be his last ever game in the premiership, not only has he made that clear, but his short term contract will have run its course. Falcons are marketing this game as “Goode Sunday” and you can fully expect him to play at least part of the game, even if they have to wheel him onto the pitch on a hospital trolley. He desparately wants to go out on a high note, and if there was ever any tactician in the game who would know how to play against Wasps it is him.

He knows full well that our attack is firing brilliantly, and that Gloucester neutralised us perfectly. He also knows that we almost always prefer to run the ball than kick it. A well executed kicking game with a hard and fast kick-chase is exactly what negates us, and it is exactly what suits him down to the ground.

That is why we don’t want to rest our best players. At the very most we have ten games left this season. And that is only if we make it to both the premiership and ECC finals. We need our best Full back on the field at 15, and that is Charles Piutau. We need our best wingers on the field and they are Christian Wade and Frank Halai, we need our best centres in the middle, and they are Siale Piutau, and Elliot Daly, and we need our best half backs linking it together. They are Gopperth and Robson on current evidence.

Our pack needs to dominate, and we need to be competing for the ball at every possible opportunity. A ruck is not a reset, it is a chance to win the ball. A lineout is a chance to turn them over, and a scrum is simply a try waiting to happen.

We need the team that can perform the best on an artificial surface, and so that is why I fully expect to see Launch, Mullan, and Daly straight back to the first choice. I expect to see Davies on the bench along with Jackson and Cittadini, and I expect to see Hask having a week to recover from the atrocious level of damage he took dominating almost every breakdown in a 6 Nations Grand Slam.

I’d be very happy to empty the bench early on if it looks like we have it in the bag, but I’d hate to go with the arrogance of the assured winners, because if there was ever a team perfectly placed to show us the error of our ways it is Falcons. They desparately need the points right now, and if we take our eye off the ball (literally and metaphorically) they will destroy us.

My team to face Newcastle Falcons this weekend would be.

Mullan
Festuccia
Cooper-Wooley
Launchbury
Myall
Smith
Young
Hughes
Robson
Gopperth
Halai
S. Piutau
Daly
Wade
C. Piutau

With a bench of
McIntyre
Johnson
Cittadini
Davies
Stevenson
Jackson
Jones
Macken

And if we take that team, I’d expect us to come away with another good(e) win.

Wasps vs Sale Sharks – Match Preview

Wasps vs Sale SharksThe last time Wasps faced Sale sharks, we came away with only a losing bonus point for our troubles, but this weekend we face them at home, and it looks like it may be a different result. Wasps are clear favourites after an amazing run of form in both the Aviva Premiership and the European Champions Cup. I thought it might be interesting to look at the statistics from both teams last games, and see if there was anything that might help us predict the result this weekend when Sale Sharks play Wasps at the Ricoh Arena.

Firstly lets look at attacking play.

Wasps made 488 metres in total when the played Leicester Tigers, but Sale Sharks only managed 322 metres when playing Northampton Saints. Interestingly three Wasps players made more than 70m (Wade, Halai, and C Piutau) while only one Sale Sharks player managed the same, Danny Cipriani. So when it comes to making metres Wasps have a clear advantage, but that could just reflect the fact that the style of play more often than not involves running the ball from deep instead of kicking.

Wasps managed 125 carries, with Smith, Jones, Wade, and Miller all making it into double figures, while Sale Sharks made 84 carries. Ioane, Addison, and Arscott made it to double figures. Though again this stat may simply reflect the style of play rather than success with the ball in hand.

To see how effective the teams were we need to look at some different statistics.

Wasps managed 10 clean breaks, with Sale only 1 behind with 9, however Sale only beat 11 defenders, while Wasps beat 26 defenders. This is a much more interesting statistic as it shows that Wasps are not only running the ball a lot, but are successfully managing to get past the defence with the ball in hand. The stats for offloads and passes made are both pretty similar, so it would seem that defenders beaten is the only significant figure we can look at that might have any bearing on the game.

However it isn’t all about attack (so I am told, as a Wasps fan it really is), and so lets look at defence. Wasps made 104 tackles, and missed 14, while Sale Sharks made 127 and missed 18. I am sure both sets of coaches would consider the number of missed tackles to be far too high (and it’s hard to disagree), Wasps did miss marginally fewer (11% as opposed to 12.5%) but missing more than 1 in 10 is going to be an issue for both teams.

The one last statistic that is of note is the number of turnovers. Wasps made 5 against Tigers, while Sharks failed to make a single turnover against Saints. Part of that is down to George Smith, but he only made 1 of the 5, so perhaps his magic is rubbing off on the others.

I haven’t looked at the set piece, simply because Wasps have shown themselves very able to play the game plan they do best whether they are dominating, or being driven backwards at the scrum. Though it is worth bearing in mind that Sale have a number of players who can and do steal lineouts.

Who is going to win? My money would be on Wasps. If it is dry I would suggest there will be two converted tries between the teams, if wet it may come down to the respective boots of Gopperth and Cipriani, and on current form Gopperth is going to win that contest.

Wasps vs Harlequins – Match Preview

Wasps vs HarlequinsWasps have been on a real run of form over the last few weeks with five wins in a row accumulating 23 points. They have started to cement their place in the top six, and are making a real claim for top four, but things are still very tight at the top of the table with only 8 point separating Wasps in 3rd from Gloucester in 8th. And so this weekend’s home game against Harlequins is a must win match for Wasps. However as Quins are sitting in fourth place it is exactly the same for them.

It’s a Six Nations weekend, so both teams are going to be without several significant players. Wasps can fully expect to be missing Joe Launchbury, Bradley Davies, James Haskell, Ruaridh Jackson, Lorenzo Cittadini and Elliot Daly to international duty, and of course the injury list continues to mount with Joe Simpson, Alapati Leiua, Sam Jones, Guy Thompson, Ben Jacobs and James Gaskell definitely out, possibly joined by Matt Mullan. Who does that leave? And will they be enough to defeat our sister team?

Wasps vs Harlequins – Predicted Team

Assuming Mullan is still out then Simon McIntyre, known affectionately as both “Chesty” and “Big Mac” is more than capable of starting at Loose Head. Over the last few games he has really started to come into his own with scrummaging equal to everyone who has faced him, and astonishingly good work in the breakdown with 8 carries, 1 offload, and 1 try to his name against Bath. Tight Head is equally easy with Jake Cooper-Wooley equalling MacIntyre’s 8 carries, though he has looked to be struggling to shake off an injury from earlier in the season as his Scrummaging hasn’t quite been up to the standard of last season.

Hooker is a much harder position to call, with Carlo Festuccia’s wiley experience and ability against the maul against Ashley Johnson’s hard running and devastating carrying. For me this would depend on the weather. If it looks like it will be dry then I’d start Smashley and have Fester on the bench, but if it looks like rain then I’d reverse that.

With Launchbury, Davies and Gaskell all unavailable the second row picks itself with Kearnan Myall (pushing hard to be first choice anyway) and James Cannon who is no slouch as he showed against Saracens.

The back row that has started the last two games is hard to beat from the current players, and having two players able to “jackal” in Thomas Young and George Smith helps dominate the breakdown, and it is always going to be hard to find any justification not to play the incredible Nathan Hughes.

Dan Robson has showed a glorious turn of form over the last few games, and his linkwork with the equally impressive Jimmy Gopperth has been the undoing of many a team. The centres however are a little trickier. 12 is simple enough with Siale Piutau fitting in beautifully and showing a real mix of hard running, and soft hands to make the spot his own, but 13 is a little trickier. It’s likely to go to Brendan Macken in the absence of Daly, but we haven’t seen much of Sailosi Tagicakibau recently and he is more than capable of providing a threat from the centre.

The back three, much like the front three are a shoe in. Frank Halai (joint top try scorer so far) and Christian Wade on the wings, with the magical Charles Piutau at Full back.

Will this be a good enough team to beat Harlequins? It is certainly possible. After the demolition of Saracens and Leinster, and the less spectacular, though equally impressive wins against Bath, Saints, and Falcons you’d have to think that it is. Especially with O’Shea having announced his resignation, and Evans being injured.

Wasps vs Harlequins – My Prediction

So here’s my prediction. If the sun shines, we’ll take 5 points with a comfortable win. If it rains we’ll scrape a win, but not manage the extra point.

What do you think?

Wasps vs Worcester Warriors – Match Preview

Wasps vs Worcester WarriorsWith an absolute must win match coming up against Worcester Warriors I thought it might be worth taking a moment to look at who might be playing.

If we’d been able to replicate our European form in the Aviva Premiership to date then this would have been a perfect opportunity to rest some of our starting XV, but with Wasps sitting in 9th place, only 3 points above Worcester’s 10th place this is an absolute must win match, and so I suspect we won’t be seeing much in the way of rested players.

My Wasps squad to face Worcester Warriors

1) Simon McIntyre

2) Ashley Johnson

3) Jake Cooper-Wooley

4) Joe Launchbury

5) James Gaskell

6) James Haskell

7) George Smith

8) Nathan Hughes

9) Joe Simpson

10) Ruaridh Jackson

11) Alapati Leiua

12) Ben Jacobs

13) Elliot Daly

14) Frank Halai

15) Charles Piutau

16) Matt Mullan

17) Ed Shervington

18) Lorenzo Cittadini

19) Bradley Davies

20) Sam Jones

21) Jimmy Gopperth

22) Dan Robson

23) Sailosi Tagikacibau

McIntyre ahead of Mullan might seem a little controversial after I said I want to see our strongest possible team.  However in the scrum there is little to choose between them, I might even put Big Mac ahead though Mullan is without a doubt a better carrier in the loose.  With Nathan hopefully back at 8, and Leiua in the backs displacing Miller I think we can afford to let Mullan have a bench place rather than a starting spot, but I’d want to know we can bring him on if the need arises.

For me Cooper-Wooley and Cittadini are pretty much equal in ability both in the scrum and the loose, but Cittadini has a tendency to give away the odd silly penalty, and every point is going to count.  Cooper-Wooley may not be match fit, or even fit at all, so I wouldn’t be disappointed if Cittadini gets the nod, but I’d really like to see JCW back as soon as possible.

I’d give Gaskell the nod over Davies to start, simply for his lineout ability. With Johnson’s throwing looking a little more fragile over the last few games we need the most solid catchers we can, and he also has a tendency to steal the ball more than anyone else in the team.

For me the form 9-10 is without a doubt Simpson and Jackson. Robson doesn’t seem to be able to recreate his glorious form of last year, and with one exception Gopperth has been outplayed by Jackson in every outing. Though I’d make sure we have Gopperth on the bench as Jackson does have a tendency to lose confidence if things aren’t going his way.  Having someone who can shore things up to come on can’t hurt.

The centres have to be Daly and Jacobs. Their combination of defensive solidity and evasive running is a briliant pairing.

The back three is a big area of contention for me. I can’t see any reason to play Miller at 15 when we have Piutau on the books. We have suffered under the high ball a lot this season and that will not have gone unnoticed at Worcester. We need the most solid full back we have, and that is Piutau. The fact that he is also extremely threatening running with the ball in hand is a bonus. That leaves the wings, and whilst neither Halai nor Leiua have recreated their Southern Hemisphere form yet, but they never will if we don’t play them.  Lieua might be happier in the centres, but he is a phenomenal winger when things go well, and we should be making use of that.

The only position I am not convinced about is Hooker. Johnson has managed the transition from back row to front row better than I could possibly have imagined, but despite his obvious strengths on the field in general he is far from the finished article at 2. Carlo Festuccia is without a doubt our first choice currently, But should Johnson get the nod over Shervington?

Whatever team Dai chooses I hope we don’t end up risking losing this game, we absolutely have to beat Worcester Warriors if we are going to stand any chance at all of reaching the top six again.