Wasps vs Sharks – What Went Wrong?

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Wasps vs Sharks – What Went Wrong?

  1. As a long- term lurker on the DrunkenWasps forum, may I just say that I think this is a great piece of analysis. Of course it does beg the question, don’t we need to build a team that can win in different styles?

  2. Hi Roger,

    I think you have isolated the reason Dai Young keeps calling us a work in progress and makes it clear he doesn’t think we are the finished article yet. We do some things extremely well, but others less so. Partly because we don’t have the strength in depth of some other teams, and partly because our coaching strategies are relatively new.

    I suspect that over the next couple of seasons we will become less and less weak in these areas.

    Assuming of course we manage to stay in the ECC for another year.

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