September 8 2011
After a heartening first round win over champions Saracens, Wasps make their first appearance of the season at Adams Park this Sunday, taking on last year's beaten finalists, Leicester.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, there's the small matter of a World Cup taking place, a tournament whose scheduling seems calculated to cause maximum disruption to the Northern Hemisphere club season and minimal disruption to anyone else.
Perhaps you shouldn't look a gift-horse in the mouth. This is the ideal time to play Leicester, you might think, or at least the second most ideal time after the opening weekend. Missing eleven players to the World Cup, six of those in the England squad, Leicester can't help but be a shadow of the team they should be. Wasps, by contrast, are shorn of only four players (although long term injuries and retirements, as with Leicester, swell the ranks of the missing). In the scramble for points that is the Premiership, anything that swings the balance in your favour has got to be welcome, hasn't it? I don't know, though. It's nice to be dealt a few aces for a change, but I'd still prefer that the Premiership wasn't treated quite so much like a doormat every four years.
Last year this same fixture provided one of the bright spots of a generally gloomy year, a tough but open game which saw Wasps overcome the visitors 37-30. And in the last World Cup season, these two teams contested the Premiership Final, no matter that call-ups to France had depleted both sides significantly at the beginning of the campaign. In Wasps' case, a distinctly average season pre-Christmas was turned around after the festivities with twelve wins from fourteen matches, including a first ever league victory at Welford Road. That season, of course, marked Wasps' last piece of silverware. The decline since that time is reflected, perhaps, in the relatively low number of international call-ups affecting us this year. But if the victory over Saracens last weekend was pleasing for anything over and above the fact that we'd taken the scalp of the champions, it was the performance of the youngsters. The future of Wasps rests with these players, and it would be nice if, in four years' time, we could bemoan the toll that World Cup call-ups are taking on us once again.
Back to the present. No matter how many of their squad are absent with their national teams, Leicester are never an easy side to overcome, and I don't expect this weekend to be any different. They will be disappointed with the loss to Exeter last Saturday. They weren't helped by the late withdrawal of new signing Mathew Tait, and the apparent groin injury sustained by Thomas Waldrom during the game (although not before he'd scored a try and made two more for Tait's replacement on the wing, Niall Morris - just like Leicester to give a start to a wing you've never heard of and then get him over the try-line twice!). It's not clear whether Tait and Waldrom will be fit to play on Sunday; if not, the loss of the latter will be the bigger blow, especially as Jordan Crane is out for the season. Expect to see Mickey Young start at scrum-half, after a positive impact on the game last week, replacing James Grindal (Young, along with Tait and prop Kieron Brookes, swells the ranks of ex-Newcastle players in the Tigers' squad even further this season – Leicester Falcons can't be far away!).
The most intriguing selection facing Richard Cockerill, however, is at fly-half. Last week saw England Under-20 stand-off George Ford play at ten. It was generally an assured performance, I thought. There will be those who would criticise Ford for attempting drop-goals to try to win the game for Leicester in the final minutes, but there are plenty of fly-halves in the Premiership who would have done the same. Had Leicester continued to attack and come up short, there might be an equal number of voices bemoaning the failure to attempt a drop-kick. The only legitimate criticism, perhaps, is that he missed on both occasions.
Should Ford start on Saturday, he will be renewing acquaintances with some of his team-mates in the England Under-20 squad, in the form of Christian Wade, Joe Launchbury, and possibly others. If there is a positive to the Premiership taking place at the same time as the World Cup, it is that we get to see these emerging talents playing in more than A-team or LV Cup games (although on last week's form, Wade and Launchbury will be fixtures for the season). Outside Ford, if he plays, I would expect to see Anthony Allen and Billy Twelvetrees, the latter of whom must also be thankful for the World Cup, his opportunities having been few and far between last season. Up front, the...I was going to say 'evergreen', but I'm not sure that he was ever green to start with...anyway, the hooker, George Chuter, will no doubt be doing what he does best between two props, whatever their names are, who know how to scrummage. Such things are taken as read with Leicester. And in the second row, George Skivington should be making another appearance in Leicester colours in front of his old home crowd.
As far as Wasps are concerned, the big question is whether they can produce the same intensity and accuracy as they did last week. Good as the performance was, it has to become the norm if the club is to break into the top six this season. All the new signings went well. Wentzel dominated in the line-out, Southwell provided a welcome solidity at the back, Robinson was calm at fly-half, Poff put in a nuggety shift on the open-side, and my man of the match, Chris Bell, was a revelation at thirteen. Strong – very strong – in the tackle, it was also his quick hands that helped put Wade away for the first try of the match. The only down-side to the Saracens game was the scrum. As so often last season, this single facet of play undid so much of the good work that surrounded it. The Launchbury tackle on Alex Goode was a case in point, forcing the five metre attacking scrum only to cough up the ball. You can't squander chances like that and expect to be competing for Heineken Cup places and other honours at the end of the season. It needs sorting. And this weekend will provide an acid test of whatever scrum-work the forwards and their coaches have put in during the week.
A game against Leicester is always to be savoured, no matter when it takes place, or what the circumstances. Whichever fifteen players run out in the red, white and green, they will have been imbued, you know, with that aggression, that bloody-mindedness, that togetherness, that comes as standard issue with the Tigers. The task for Wasps, not just in this one game, but for the entire season, is to emulate that level of performance. Do that, and the results will take care of themselves.