By P G Tips
February 28 2017
Bath face a stinger of a contest when they host Wasps this coming Saturday. The League leaders, riding high with a 6 point advantage seem to have found form just when Bath are going through an uncertain patch. Admittedly the men from the Ricoh have won only 3 of their 5 Premiership matches since Christmas, against Bath’s 2, but they have the edge in bonus points and tries scored. A total of 19 points and 21 tries show a team peaking at a difficult time in the season. In those matches they have been involved in some humdingers – taking 3 points from a 10 try draw with Exeter and even managing 2 bonus points in defeat to Sale. They seem able to shrug off the loss of key players to international duty, while Bath –more afflicted by injury than national duties- are struggling to field a settled side. Todd Blackadder has refused to blame the absence of 20 players for Bath’s truly disappointing derby defeat at Bristol last Sunday. “No excuses” he said “We actually prepared really well and it showed in the first 15, 20 minutes when we kept them under pressure and had a couple of try-scoring opportunities.” True, but Bath failed to take those early opportunities, just as in previous defeats to Exeter and Newcastle they had squandered clear leads. Psychologically Bath seem fragile, while Wasps, win or lose, are full of buzzing intent. The stage seems set for a stinging humiliation by the visitors –or does it?
Dai Young has fashioned a cohesive Wasps pack that wins quick ball at the set piece and breakdown and uses it urgently on the drive. Their industry lays an advancing platform for their stellar backs to attack with. Missing Launchbury, Haskell and Hughes, they may lack star names but still boast seasoned pros such as Mullan, Gaskell and Johnson, plus the vigour and pace of Taylor and Young. Behind them, Robson (or Simpson), Cipriani, Gopperth, Beale and le Roux are a creative force with as many tricks as a truckload of monkeys. They are also all strikers to add to the pacey threats of Wade and Bassett. High tempo, high skill, adventure and flair is their approach – similar in style to second placed Exeter, the only club to best Bath in the Premiership at the Rec this season.
Despite their form, and the galaxy of their backline, Wasps are human – Sale exposing their fallibility with some direct, driving rugby 2 weeks ago, just as Gloucester had in November. The key to beating Wasps is the simple plan of neutering their forwards so their backs are forced to run their patterns under pressure. Few sides can win while going backwards and the temptation for a talented backline to try to run themselves out of trouble can sometimes be their undoing. If Bath are to spring a surprise and beat Wasps they may have Bristol to thank for the turnaround. Blackadder summed it up: "It was disappointing. I felt like we beat ourselves. We had plenty of opportunities to win it, but we didn't build enough pressure to put ourselves in a good position." Bristol applied that pressure-simply and consistently. They came into that contest having shipped 92 points in their previous 2 AP ties, so it was the mental turnaround as much as the tactical that impressed. If Bristol can do it, so can Bath –perhaps by taking a leaf from their neighbours’ book?
At Ashton Gate Bath’s forwards had 100% set piece success and plenty of territory. Their failing was in protecting possession. Sort that out and they can expect to exert pressure more continuously. That in turn means better chance of converting such pressure into points, rather than the near misses of the Bristol game. Taulupe Faletau could be crucial here to add robustness and experience to the carrying game and perhaps Luke Charteris may be called on to add to the lineout options. There is hope too that Anthony Watson will be released by England to gain some game time and help boost Bath’s backline.
Above all, the mind has to be right- both in determination and in coolness of head. Leadership, TCUP. Tactical decision making- call it what you will –was the missing factor last weekend. If Bath can rediscover it, particularly at halfback and centre, they can make a close game of it. With home advantage and the right level of bloody mindedness, they may even have a venomous barb or two of their own. They need to find some sharpness quickly –or risk being stunned at the season’s tail.
Catt, Batty, Lahiff, Ewels, Charteris, Denton, Ellis, Faletau. Cook, Priestland. Watson,Tapuai, Joseph, Rokoduguni. Homer.
Replacements: Obano, V Vuuren, Palma-Newport, Stooke, Z Mercer,. Homer, Hastings, Clark.
Wasps: Mullan, Taylor, Cooper-Woolley, Symons, Gaskell, Johnson, Young, Rieder. Robson, Cipriani, Wade, Eastmond, Gopperth, Le Roux, Beale,
Replacements: Festuccia, McIntyre, Moore, Rowlands, Willis, Simpson, Leiua, Bassett.