April 27 2016
So, the curtain has finally come down on Wasps’ best European campaign in nine years. A good time to reflect on what has been a memorable season in Europe.
Back in July, when the European Champions’ Cup draw was made, one pool stood out and was immediately dubbed the “Group Of Champions”, with all four teams in the pool being former European Champions, boasting nine titles between them. Fans and media were agreed that there had never been such a tough pool in the tournament’s history. Equally, most were agreed that Wasps as bottom seeds and having finished in the last English qualifying spot would struggle against the might of the three time defending champions Toulon; champions in three of the previous four years, Leinster; and a Bath team that had just enjoyed a very successful domestic season, finishing second in the league and reaching the Premiership final. With such low expectations, perhaps the best Wasps could hope for was a learning experience for a side short on pedigree in terms of the Champions’ Cup, a chance to test ourselves against the very best in Europe. The schedule was announced in due course, and Wasps found themselves with a trip to Dublin to face Leinster to start, followed by a visit from the seemingly invincible champions Toulon, and then consecutive games against Bath before the corresponding reverse fixtures.
What could we realistically expect to get from those first two matches to ensure we were still in the hunt by the time Bath came to the Ricoh in round three?
We’d have to win at least one, but could we do that?
Would a couple of encouraging performances picking up one or two losing bonus points be respectable, especially considering we were apparently only in the group to make up the numbers?
We went to Dublin in hope more than expectation. Then the belief started. It started with a slightly lucky bounce to which Christian Wade was quicker to react than Rob Kearney, and we were up and running. Tries from an excellent Frank Halai break finished under the posts by Joe Simpson and by Charles Piutau at the death in the corner meant Wasps came away from the RDS with a very impressive 33-6 win.
People started to take notice.
Some fans started to believe. Some preferred to keep their expectations in check.
Much was made of the relative strength of Leinster. They had some key injuries, and were a shadow of the team that had won 3 titles in 4 years.
Toulon next up, so we will soon be brought back down to earth. Still, away wins in Europe are always valuable and we had one in the bank. Could we back it up against the all-star Toulon team the following week? Surely not…
Turns out we could. And how!
Within 10 minutes we found ourselves 14-0 up with Nathan Hughes charging over in the corner before a fantastic chip from Ruaridh Jackson was gathered by Joe Simpson and returned to the on running Jackson to finish under the posts. Wasps never looked back with further tries from Frank Halai (narrowly avoiding being tackled by the post!), and a second from Hughes giving us a bonus point win against the champions and putting us top of the Group Of Champions after two games.
Next up, back-to- back games against more familiar opposition in Bath. First at home where expectations were high that we could get the win and cement our place at the top of the group. Having upset the odds to win their previous two matches as underdogs in the eyes of most, Wasps came up against a Bath team whose league form had been patchy at best, and Wasps were well fancied to win at home. Two first half Bath tries left Wasps playing catch up, but they continued to keep the scoreboard moving and only trailed 15-12 at half time. A try from Rob Miller and a late Jimmy Gopperth penalty looked to have won it for Wasps, 23-18 up with time running out. However, with Bath applying enormous pressure to the Wasps line in the final minutes, the referee ran out of patience and sent first Lorenzo Cittadini and then George Smith to the sin bin in quick succession leaving Wasps defending with 13 men. By the time Bath moved the ball all the way out to Anthony Watson on the left wing, Wasps had inevitably run out of defenders and Watson went over in the corner to level the scores. George Ford’s touchline conversion was good, and Wasps fell to their first defeat of the campaign.
On to the Rec to try and put it right. Bath would have been full of confidence following their win at the Ricoh a week earlier, but back came the Wasps that we had seen against Leinster and Toulon. An early converted try by Bath did little to calm the nerves, but tries first from Elliot Daly, and then Jimmy Gopperth right at the end of the half gave Wasps a commanding lead that then never looked under threat and was added to by a second half Alapati Leiua try to make it 36-10 to Wasps.
Next up was what should have been the toughest game of the lot, away at Toulon. Having given a good account of ourselves there in the previous season’s quarter final, Wasps were keen to show that they had improved since then and could be a match for anyone. Midway through the first half, Wasps found themselves 8 points down and a man down with George Smith in the bin for a collision that Bryan Habana appeared to exaggerate. Wasps hung in there with a couple of penalties before what was probably my personal highlight of the European season.
Guy Thompson steamrollered through a series of Toulon defenders to score in the corner and put Wasps 11-8 up with about 10 minutes to go. History in the making? Toulon had never lost at home in Europe. Were Wasps about to be the team to break that record? The home supporters were starting to get on their team’s back, until in the final play of the game, Drew Mitchell scored the heart-breaking try to give Toulon the narrowest of wins. Disappointment and pride in equal measure. Wasps had given a fantastic account of themselves and certainly earned the respect of the Toulon supporters who were very gracious in acknowledging how lucky they had been.
So on to the final game at home to Leinster. Wasps were well placed to qualify just a point behind Toulon in the group with one to play, and possibly even top the group with a favour or two from Bath in their game at home to Toulon. Wasps did their bit, with an impressive 51-10 demolition of Leinster guaranteeing a quarter final place in a carnival atmosphere at the Ricoh. All eyes turned to smartphones for news from the Rec. Toulon had won, but without the bonus point they needed meaning Wasps finished top of this toughest of European groups and secured not just a quarter final, but a home quarter final, probably against Clermont, or maybe Ospreys depending on results in their pool. The following afternoon produced the unlikeliest of results with Clermont losing at home to Bordeaux to throw the group wide open. Exeter who had looked to be completely out of the running, scored a bonus point win in their match against Ospreys that was enough to win them the pool, while Morgan Parra turned down a late kick at goal for Clermont which would have given them a losing bonus that would have been enough to pip Chiefs to the top spot in that group. So to everyone’s surprise (including the Exeter players and coaches at the end of their game), it was to be Wasps v Chiefs at the Ricoh in the quarter final.
Chiefs had beaten Wasps comfortably at the Ricoh earlier in the season, punishing us with a series of scores from driving mauls that we seemed unable to defend. So it’s fair to say it was not a particularly welcome draw for Wasps. It was a long wait from that final round of pool games in January to the quarter finals in April, and in that time, Wasps’ league form was transformed from what was probably best described as inconsistent and a mid-table league position to exhilarating, expansive, fast, running rugby taking them into the top four and even closing in on second placed Exeter as the quarter final approached. Wasps had become the team everyone wanted to talk about and everyone wanted to watch. It promised to be a very different encounter to the league fixture earlier in the season. However, a familiar pattern seemed to be emerging when Wasps’ nemesis from earlier in the season, Thomas Waldrom scored twice in the first half to make it 14-6 to Chiefs by half-time. Of course, we all know what happened next. Wasps came back from 13 points down with 15 minutes to go, through tries from Frank Halai and Charles Piutau before Jimmy Gopperth nailed the final conversion to send Wasps through to their first semi-final since winning the Cup in 2007.
And on to the final chapter in this season’s European adventure. It was to be Saracens at the Madejski in the semi-final. Fresh in everyone’s mind was the 60 point drubbing Wasps had handed out at Sarries just a couple of months earlier, but this would be a different Sarries side from that day when the Six Nations denied them the services of a host of internationals. In no way were Wasps expecting a similarly comfortable afternoon this time. Even before reaching the stadium, it was evident that there were a lot more Wasps than Sarries fans turned out. The team bus got a fantastic reception, and once inside, the noise and support from the Wasps fans, who probably outnumbered their Saracens counterparts at least 2:1, was among the best I have ever heard from travelling Wasps fans. A typically fast and elusive run from Christain Wade in the opening few minutes put Dan Robson in for the try to make it 7-0 to Wasps. Maybe this was going to be a repeat of Allianz Park after all?! Maybe not. Sarries scored a try from a charge down in the first half and then a penalty try from a collapsed maul with Simon McIntyre in the sin bin to make it 24-10 with only 5 minutes left. To their enormous credit, and probably spurred on by the quarter final two weeks earlier, Wasps pushed to get back in it and scored a try through Ashley Johnson almost immediately. Gopperth’s conversion got us back within 7, and Wasps continued to press to try and force extra time, but ultimately were beaten by the clock. A great effort to wrap up a truly epic season in Europe. I am immensely proud of the team’s achievements in Europe this season and am delighted to have been at so many of these games along the way. There is a tinge of disappointment that we won’t be there to contest the final in Lyon, but if you had suggested to any Wasps supporter at the start of the season that they would end up in a European semi-final, then they would probably have asked for a large glass of whatever you were drinking. Some massive highs along the way, and the odd low too of course, but huge congratulations to Dai and his coaches and every one of the squad for what has been a thoroughly enjoyable season in Europe. Already looking forward to next season!