Although it's somewhat of a geographical conundrum, Exeter and Wasps is becoming somewhat of a top of the table derby with both teams usually combining to create the fixture of the year. It's the old adage of power vs speed, grit vs expansion and set piece vs open play. Wasps are now twice beaten in previous finals but hold a key victory in Europe last time the two met a few years back; as a new years special, this one lined itself up as a grudge match from the off. What were our takeaways?
Not Your Mama's Wasps
Now I may have shot myself in the foot here since I'm already pointing out the hypocrisy in my first paragraph, but Wasps aren't the same Wasps of yester year. They have a tough, grizzled front row, some international star quality at lock and a back row that's both dynamic and destructive around the park; it's these changes that made all the difference today. Where Wasps have come unstuck in the past is around physicality and consistency in defence... Ian Costello had changed that world for them. The defence from Wasps in the first half, though not entirely legal in the maul, was absolutely ferocious. Exeter DON'T screw up 5 metres out, but Wasps forced error after error with stubbornness and disruptiveness around the base of the ruck. Picking Gaskell at 6 gave Wasps the bulk to withstand Exeter driving set plays, but it was actually some master strokes from Tom Willis that I felt the commentators kept overlooking. Often the first up in defence, the last up on his feet in the ruck and the first to pull apart the maul, Willis a thorn in the side for this Exeter pack. Wasps aren't the same beast anymore, they've added a winning pack culture and I love it!
Joe Simmonds, The Queens Favourite
On paper the clash between Simmonds and Umaga looked ever so tasty for the neutral. However, when all was said and done, I don't think either lost much stock in this game. Umaga looked slow out of the blocks, perhaps nervous due to the good form of young Atkinson and a rejuvenated Sopoaga, dropping a couple of easy passes and look way too shallow in the set play. However, he did prove he doesn't just need front foot ball to really play; excellent tackling, a couple of fantastic, probing kicks into Exeter 5m line and some decisive breaks saw him put in an overall solid performance at the heart of the Wasps backline. Simmonds on the other hand continued to prove his class despite huge exclusions in his usual backline. I'm going to throw it out there, he's the closest stylistically to Wilkinson with ball in hand since the man himself. Great delayed passes, strong in the contact area and not afraid to put his body on the line to off foot his opposite number. Both players made some minor errors but I think the battle was largely a draw.
Did Injuries/Breaks Effect The Game?
Well yes obviously, but that doesn't mean it would have entirely effected the result. Sure Exeter were missing LCD, Gray, Hogg and Slade, but let's not forget Wasps missing Fekitoa, Minozzi, Kibirige, Mills, Barbeary and Shields. I think the result reflected the new tactical advantage Wasps found in meeting Exeter's offence with a back row that included an extra lock, a comfortable centre pairing that worked hard as a pair and a dominance in the scrum which the ref eventually noticed moving into the second half. Don't let the pundits fool you into thinking Exeter took this game as a chance to rest players, they took this game as another must-win game but HAD to rest players whereas Wasps had utilised their squad far better leading into the exact game. Its a privilidge to get on the pitch due to the extenuating circumstances we find ourselves in, but credit has to be at Blackett's front door due to his rotation.
Joe Launchbury - Another stellar MOTM performance by big Joe, I believe he should be firmly in that Lions picture now.
James Gaskell - Becoming a club hero for Wasps now, two great tries, an awesome shift out of position and ferocious in that back row.
Tom Willis - Tackles and carries galore, key interventions to stop Exeter's driving maul and took big hits to stabilise his sides attacking platform.
Josh Bassett - Bumped off his opposite number a couple times with a huge fend, split the defence in two and offloaded handedly to create the try of the match.
Dan Robson - Marshalled the breakdown expertly, put in some great box kicks and asked questions of Exeter's guards throughout his time on the pitch.
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