Perhaps the most overlooked game this weekend, Wasps vs Worcester actually had an animosity to it that you don't often see in Rugby. It's that type of off-field vitriol that usually lends itself to sports dominated by sleazy owners i.e. the last six months in Football. Worcester refused to delay this game for Wasps to have fans in the stadium, a nice tactical decision on the surface, but actually a real spit in the face of loyal supporters who have to wait even longer to watch their beloved sides do battle once more. Honestly, after the year we've had and the ideals we constantly reiterate as Rugby fans about our sport, it's a move that spits in the face of supporters around the country. Wasps marketing heading into this match was expertly posed to exploit this decision, promoting the game as a grudge match between right and wrong. Who came out the Victor?
Wasps Injury Woes
It's no secret that the Wasps squad has been decimated for what feels like the third season in a row by horrendous injuries. Although the big ticket injuries to Willis and Launchbury often hit the headlines, it's the niggling problems that Wasps players just can't seem to shirk. Alo finally making an appearance, starting well, and then leaving after 20 minutes is just another example of Wasps' awful injury luck. It's enough to keep Wasps constantly reassessing their game plan mid game; something no side can consistently do for a full season. It's meant for tentative viewing as a Wasps fan, as you can see big players almost hesitant to take impact. There were weird examples littered throughout this game of the likes of Rowlands and Umaga, standing off tackles and caught in two minds as to whether to commit; Worcester first try could have potentially been blunted if Umaga chose to get his head in and not cover in a weird diagonal away from the carrier. I don't know, it's an unusual point to make at this level, but the fact that examples keep popping up game to game must be concerning for Wasps defensive coach.
What can't be doubted, is the improvement of Brad Shields under pretty testing circumstances. Shields has developed his all round game massively, becoming an all-encompassing, dynamic number 8. Explosive off of the line, his first up tackles saved Wasps on a couple of dire occasions. Although Wasps tactically suffered towards the back end of the game, for the first half hour Shields lead firmly from the front. Thomas Young also co-captained, to offer an unusually leadership centric back row. He too put in a strong performance under the radar, putting in some important tackles and carrying effectively during the first half in particular. Wasps did really miss a real presence at the breakdown though, with most fringe players opting to make follow up tackles rather than jackaling the ball; Worcester began to exploit Wasps lack of numbers at each ruck and Kvesic and co hurt Wasps at the turn of the half.
It was an intriguing first half battle when boot was put to ball, with both sides putting in some some cracking kicks to clear their lines. For every patch of ground Umaga found, Shillcock and Searle hoofed it back, sometimes with interest. However, Wasps worked the ball really well in the first half, choosing to pin Worcester back in their own 22; Wasps historically run from anywhere, but seeing them make probing kicks around the half way and 10m lines was a refreshing strategic nuance that worked effectively. However, as the games momentum started to shift when Wasps went a man down, Umaga's kicking became erratic and the battle swayed in Worcester's direction. Kicks out on the full with no pressure, an inability to find turf; the game slowly looked like it was going off of the rails once again for the black and gold. It wasn't helped by a couple of dropped balls in the back field by young Atkinson (who overall had a cracking match) and Umaga too; Kibirige and Bassett seemed to leave a lot of ground to cover for the young stand offs. At one point, Worcester looked to be in the driving seat and really should have put the game to bed. Wasps HAVE to sort out their gameplan for the final 20 minutes as they seem to keep falling apart in the dying embers of each game, to me this is very much a tactical issue and potentially even a fitness related one.
Glimmers of Hope for Worcester
Look, Worcester's season has been a bit of a car crash from start to finish, with the odd strong performance against Exeter and Wasps thrown in for good measure, but I do think there is a lot to be hopeful for in that side. Ted Hill continues to be one of the most overlooked, outstanding blindsides in the league, Searle is, at the very least, mid/top six quality, Shillcock is one of the most consistent full backs in England and Venter causes real problems for any opposition who aren't willing to front up. Sprinkle in the likes of Jack Owlett and Chudley next season, then they'll start to bolster all of the right areas; unfortunately Ashton has turned out to be a dud and this side does need some cutting edge outside of Lawrence. Tactically, Worcester are nearly there, they have some big hoofs, they have strong ball carriers and some excellent breakdown disruptors; a bit of star quality needed perhaps?
Brad Shields - Another sterling performance from the de-bearded guru, very rare to see him have a quiet game, always leads from the front.
James Gaskell - Under the radar performance but tackled well, covered for a lot of Rowlands' mistakes and causes real pressure with his gangly charge-downs.
Charlie Atkinson - Despite a few dropped balls, Atkinson made a very dysfunctional, covering back three, look far more assured in defence than they deserved. A couple of great pegs too.
Dan Robson - It can be painful seeing players not keep up with Robson, but the guy is so electric that it's hard for us as viewers to keep up. Great kicks, excellent covering and cut through Worcester on a couple of occasions.
Richard Palframan - Absolutely eaten at Scrum time by a historically poor Wasps shove, didn't get any easier when Wasps started to use their bench too.
Ben Morris - Actually had a very good first half, but his red card did seem slightly reckless in retrospect, Wasps had to play the last quarter a man down with the swing of momentum stemming from Morris' mistake.