Going into the season, there was a lot to be excited for if you're a Wasps fan. Your side has only narrowly missed out on a chance to win the title, and even then, you had a COVID stricken side that took an all time great Exeter side to the final whistle to beat. Your attack looked scintillating, your defence looked incredibly impressive and your squad looked deep with talent.
You then enter the season with a close fought win against a flying Bristol side and there is still lots to cheer about. Then came a double of losses... These weren't close losses to sides that were obvious title challengers, but losses to an awful Gloucester side (that put 40 points on you) and a Newcastle side finding some form, but surely didn't possess the quality to put away a finalist so easily. Worrying, yes, but it was way too early in the season to start fretting.
A much needed European break suddenly came around the corner and Wasps secured a great victory against an admittedly weak Dragons side. Wasps then followed that up with four straight wins, back-to-back-to-back-to-back fantastic performances where they took sides apart with their infamous attacking functionalities. Expansive, traditional Rugby that diehard fans dipped their trilbies to.
However, the last of those wins, Wasps could have lost in the first quarter of the match shipping twenty points before they knew what hit them. Twenty points to a significantly weakened Bath side that had no right in putting a further twenty on them later on...
Then came the huge drop in form... A rejuvenated Quins side put nearly fifty on them, Northampton won their match in the first thirty minutes, a slight bump against a really poor Worcester team didn't help and then an absolute battering by Leicester at the weekend.
So, where does that leave us with these potential title challengers now threatening to miss out on European Rugby? Let's dissect the facts...
If you were to pinpoint one of the key strengths in this Wasps side moving into this season, it was the depth of sheer talent they had in their back row you would be flicking your finger to. Jack Willis, Tom Willis, Brad Shields, Thomas Young, Alfie Barbeary, Gabriel Oghre and the list goes on... There is international quality littered throughout those names and each one would start in most other teams in the league. However, Alfie Barbeary suffered a pretty nasty injury early on into the season with Thomas Young quickly following suit. Jack Willis then suffered a horror injury whilst on international duty and now we find ourselves in a really rough patch trying to cover a spread of positions. Morris stepped up and to be fair to him, has looked like another gem in that Wasps squad, but even he suffered a nasty head injury on the back of that awful Leicester hiding. Gaskell has been deployed to varying success at six but this is becoming a real sore sport for the men in Black and Gold.
Then you look at that front row, a front row that was constantly underrated last season and one of the main reasons for Wasps' turnaround. Owlett, an effective understudy has been out for the majority of the season. Zhvania, has yet to appear for Wasps this season, whether that's down to injury or poor training form, we are still yet to find out the details. Brookes has had to go off pretty early in a couple of decisive fixtures due to niggling injuries and now he's been banned for three games. Tom West was drawn away on international duty and too has been subbed off early due to a couple of slight hiccups in fitness. Now Wasps are fully reliant on an out-of-form Toomaga-Allen and loanee Nicky Thomas to guide them through the next month or so; those are not the options to use when you're mounting a title challenge.
Then you start to look at key figures elsewhere in the squad who have suffered nasty injuries. Launchbury, unfortunately ever-injury prone will miss a large chunk of Wasps' season and he has proven on countless occasions to be integral to this sides uptick in form. Fekitoa missed the first few games of the season and is now having to overcommit in defence to hide the frailties in this side causing even more injuries; he's now out again. Kibirige suffered a horror knockout at the Falcons and missed the next few games and is only now returning to the fray. Bassett missed the fixture at Northampton due to being run ragged over the last two seasons; it's an injury calamity. Even players such as Minozzi, Vellacott and De Jongh have spent periods on the treatment table; the whole squad is battered and bruised.
On paper, Wasps have some absolute class in their half back pairings. They have international-quality Fly Halves (no, we aren't taking Sopoaga into consideration) and Robson, Vellacott, Porter and Wolstenholme is one of the finest pools of Scrum Halves in the league. However, Umaga's form has been erratic to say the least, with a complete lack of tactical versatility and some poor showings against Harlequins and Northampton. Sopoaga, as I briefly touched upon, is quickly becoming one of the worst-ever signings in Premiership history. The price paid, the sheer amount of time given to prove himself and the amount of games lost due to individual errors place him firmly outside of the starting squad. Atkinson has been the shining light out of all of this, looking like a potential future England 10 with a calm and collected head atop his shoulders.
Robson missing doesn't seem like a game-breaking problem on the surface, but it's quickly proven to be the downfall to this Wasps side. He marshal's the game so effectively that the glaring mistakes we have been seeing at 10 each game look fairly paved over. His quick ball, accuracy and unpredictability proves him as a standout 9 in a league that has some many competitive, ball playing scrum halves already. Wolstenholme is the next best in the position, and to be fair to him, he seems tactically resolute, makes little to no errors and kicks well when called upon. However, Ben Vellacott, the rightful heir to Robson's throne has looked pretty dreadful in short stints this season with a particularly poor performance opposite the Tigers last weekend. Slow ball, poor service, terrible/aimless kicking and a lack of fluidity killed Wasps off last weekend even when they did get that rare piece of attacking ball. Porter is young and has been used sparingly; he's definitely one of the future, but has looked a bit too green to be starting for this Wasps side.
What's Going On At Scrum Time?
Believe it or not, heading into the last two fixtures, Wasps had one of the best attacking scrum percentages in the league. They sat at 93% for winning scrums and that's historically a title winning percentage. However, in the last two weeks we saw Wasps lose over 50% of their scrums; again that might be heavily impacted by injuries, but I think it's more likely that the side have failed to adjust to different refereeing interpretations. This has been none-more evident that when Toomaga Allen made a cameo last week losing scrum after scrum on the bounce due to the same infringements. Wasps' lack of platform at the scrum has meant front-foot ball has not been possible, impacting the service that the already shaky half backs are having to deal with.
Defence, Or Lack There Of It
Being a Wasps supporter under Dai Young had it's bitter sweet moments. Our attack was elusive and exciting, decimating defences as if they were never there. However, it's the defence that constantly let his side down. This attitude of, 'no matter how many you score, we can score more' led to Wasps often getting pumped in matches that required a bit of tactical nuance. It didn't help that we had a lightweight 10, 12 and 13 in Cipriani, Gopperth and De Jongh at the time. Wasps' defence now is even worse than that...
What made Blackett's take over of Wasps last season so refreshing, wasn't what pundits lazily referred to as 'making his side happier', it was a grittiness and ruggedness that we hadn't seem from Wasps in a decade. They hurt teams in every area of the game; they used big ball carriers, they disrupted every breakdown, they smashed people in the backline. This was all adequately summed up by the repeat performances of Fekitoa in the centres who had highlight reels coming out of the wazoo due to his big performances.
Wasps now look completely toothless in defence. In the opening ten minutes against Leicester, they missed 13 tackles, a stat that has yet to be beaten in the league; not the type of stat you want to hear. Rowlands ducked out of tackles, Brookes kept dropping his shoulder to the deck and the technique looked all over the place! Ian Costello has his work cut out trying to fix this ahead of the clash with London Irish this weekend because Wasps look miles away from a side that could contain the big ball carriers in that Irish pack.
As a Wasps fan, I've come to expect a revolving door in the transfer policy of my club. For five years now, we've signed short term marquee signings and had cult heroes leave unexpectedly due to contract disputes. However, going in to this season I was pleasantly surprised to see that we kept the majority of the side together; in fact, I'd go so far as to say we had one of the best transfer periods in this history of the club. Just keeping together that back row was enough to make me excited coming into this season...
That was until February hit, where Rowlands, Owlett, Taylor and now potentially Sopoaga have all announced their departures at the end of the season. With Gopperth's retirement potentially on the cards too, it's beginning to look like Wasps will have a huge amount of value drop off of the wage bill. Vellacott has been linked with a move away, Brookes has been perpetually linked to a life in France and it looks like Zhvania is on his way out too.
I think this has been the biggest contributing factor as to Wasps' down-turn in form. If you look at the players currently massively underperforming at the club, you don't look to names like Taylor and Rowlands who are both synonymous with the word 'consistency' in this dressing room. But even their form has fallen off of a cliff over the last month or so, putting in terrible performances when called upon.
How Can They Change This Form?
It's a bit early to predict where any of these teams will land towards the end of the season, but you have to signal this game against London Irish as a must-win matchup for the men in black and gold. Now in ninth, they aren't too far away from regaining European Rugby, but the form of Harlequins, Northampton, Bristol, Exeter, Leicester and to some extent Newcastle has to be a worrying sign for this side. The top of the pack could quickly drift away from those other challengers and Wasps might find themselves scrapping it out with Sale, Worcester and Gloucester in the doldrums of the league.
Ahead of this weekend's clash, we can see that Wasps are prepared to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Despite his poor form, Umaga is starting again and you have to feel that this is a season defining game for him. Big Booj and De Jongh make up a new centre pairing rich with consistency and direction. Oghre back on the bench finally gives Wasps an impact option in the back row and Thomas joining the bench also gives Wasps an untested front row selection. Cruse back in the starting lineup is a huge win, with his try scoring ability largely carrying Wasps through some of their darker performances.
What Wasps need to get right is the breakdown. They need more ball, it's as simple as that. When they get that ball, they cannot rely on running from anywhere and have to learn to kick a bit more wisely; target this smaller Irish backline and find space where they haven't been successful in doing so in the past.
Wasps' attacking fluidity is still clearly there, they just haven't had the momentum or go forward to grow on it, battle for platforms to work off of and give your backline a fighting chance!