Wasps vs Gloucester – A Preview

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

Wasp vs Gloucester

Last Season’s Loss to Gloucester

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

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

A Team of Talent

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

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

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

Our Missing Players

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

The Back Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Predicted Team

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Wasps vs Sale – A breakdown

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

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

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

First let’s look at it in full.

sale1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sale2

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

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

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

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

Wasps Fly Half Issues

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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

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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.

The Best Scrum Half Around?

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England's Next Scrum Half

Joe Simpson or Dan Robson?

After impressing in the Autumn Internationals with a couple of well timed dummies, and a perfectly timed quick tap and go penalty it seems Ben Youngs had cemented his claim to the England scrum half shirt. But I’d like to suggest that all is not as secure as it initially seems.

So far for the RBS Six Nations Youngs has started at scrum half against France and Wales, and Danny Care has come off the bench. And it is at this point that we have seen a noticeable step up in the performance of the team. In both games we have looked to be struggling to put the opposition away for the first three quarters of the game, only to secure it in the last fifteen minutes. This, at least in my opinion, is at least partly due to Youngs.  Care brings something Youngs simply does not have.  Whether that is flair, speed, an ability to read the game, or simply faster distribution he is obviously better at driving the team than Youngs is.

Care is clearly faster at getting the ball back into play at the breakdown, even if Youngs box kicks are marginally better as a rule. But, and this is a very big but indeed, there are two scrum halves who could do a much better job, and luckily for Wasps, they both play for us.

Joe Simpson was all set to finally improve on his single solitary cap last year in the Six Nations, but an ankle injury against Leinster that required surgery put paid to any chances he had. He recovered and was all set to take part in the GB Rugby Sevens squad at the Olympics when a second major injury dashed his hopes yet again.

However the injuries themselves have not stopped him from showing his incredible skill. His ability to read the field is brilliant, and his experience give him an edge few others have. He has astonishing pace, even by the standards of the backline at Wasps, and his box kicking is certainly way ahead of either Youngs or Care.

However he isn’t a shoe in at Wasps for a starting spot at scrum half, because of our other freakish talent. Dan Robson.

Dan probably isn’t quite as quick in a straight footrace as Joe, but the speed of his distribution is lightning fast. He might not have the experience Joe has, but his natural flair as a footballer more than makes up for it. His vision, and ability to make the right call under the greatest of pressure was exactly what kept Wasps in the European Challenge Cup, with a fantastic quick tap and go of his own leading to a match winning try in the dying moments of the game against Toulouse.

So Eddie, if you are reading this (and let’s face it why wouldn’t you be?) and you want a Scrum Half who has solid skills with the ball, the ability to read the match, and has something special about him, then please drop Youngs and come and take a look at one of our boys?

Or even better, get Joe starting, and then bring Dan on for the last 20 minutes to finish the game and close it out.

The Trouble With Elliot Daly

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Elliot Daly

England and Wasps’ Elliot Daly

At Wasps we’ve long known Elliot Daly was a genius on the field.  His ability to beat defenders, his outside arc with the afterburners on, his side step, and his offloads have been the source of much admiration for years.  And his uncanny ability to slot over place kicks from further away than anyone would believe possible is the stuff of legend.  So when he finally made it into the England set up no-one was at all surprised.

What is a surprise however is how he seems to flit from one position to another without seeming to cause himself any problems at all.  Center?  No problem.  Wing? A doddle.  Even packing down in the scrum at one stage. But despite that everyone seems to be saying that it is at fullback with 15 on his shirt that he will eventually find his home.

The Wasps discussion forums are full of debates about what his best position is, and therefore where we at Wasps, and Eddie Jones’s England should actually be playing him.  But the fact that no-one can agree shows one thing perfectly clearly.

Elliot Daly is a player who can make his natural abilities with the ball fit in any number of positions.  The only thing that matters is that he does indeed play.  And after his astonishing try saving chase followed almost immediately by a match winning try of his own against Wales it seems that that is not going to be up for debate for some time.  

But that does tend to leave those charged with putting names on a teamsheet with a bit of a headache.  

Where the hell do you actually play him?  

It seems to me at least that the current England approach is to fill the rest of the back line and then to slot Elliot Daly into whichever position is left.  Though whatever you think of such an approach it is hard to claim it isn’t working for England.  Whether it will work quite so well for Wasps it is hard to say, but as we’re currently sitting top of the Premiership it’s hard to argue.

I strongly suspect that one of the other things that makes him such a perfect fit for Jones’s England is his natural abrasiveness. The very aspect of his character that had him sent off and further cited for abusing an official during a particularly torrid match for Wasps is the thing that Jones seems to seek out in his players.  He likes players who care, and who translate that into action on the pitch.  Players who will bring their aggression with them onto the pitch.  Hartley, Brown, Farrell, Care, are all prime examples of this, and it is a mould Elliot Daly fits perfectly.

If only there was a position that fitted him quite as well.