If you had offered London Wasps a 27-point lead over the current Aviva Premiership champions with 30 minutes left to play on the opening day of the season at Twickenham, they would have bitten your hand off. A bonus point was secured and Wasps looked as if they were on their way to a memorable victory when Harlequins took control of the game and pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent memory, scoring 29 unanswered points to win the game.
Although the loss will have been heartbreaking for both the players and fans alike, there are a lot of positives to be taken for Wasps, especially when you consider the trials and tribulations the club went through last season. An injury plagued season saw the club fighting for their lives in a relegation battle which was not resolved until the very last game of the season, all the while unsure of their long-term future as they faced impending bankruptcy.
Fast forward a few months and things could not be more different. The ongoing process to sell the club to the Ken Moss-led consortium is nearing completion and there is a lot to feel optimistic about in High Wycombe, not least the performance they put in for the first 50 minutes against Quins.
Historically, Wasps have always prided themselves on the attacking efficiency and defensive nous of their backs, with the current crop looking primed to live up to these expectations. New signing Andrea Masi looked rock-solid in defence, leading the line in a manner similar to former centre Fraser Waters, whilst Elliot Daly also looked good outside of Masi, showing fine distribution skills to frequently bring both Tom Varndell and Christian Wade into the game.
The arrival of new backs coach Shane Howarth cannot be underestimated, and his influence was apparent as both Wade and Varndell benefited from simple, yet effective, moves from the backline. With pace to burn and incisive running lines, the pair could torment Premiership defences up and down the country this year and help make Wasps one of the most dangerous attacking sides in club rugby once more.
The forwards also looked in good form – a fact which will please Director of Rugby Dai Young. The returning James Haskell was momentous at the breakdown, as was Kiwi Jonathan Poff, whilst youngster Billy Vunipola looked to have benefited from the experience he gained last year as he showed a physicality which belied his young age for much of the game. The lineout, a strength of Wasps last season, also looked good with both Marco Wentzel and Joe Launchbury linking well with hooker Tom Lindsay.
There were of course negatives for Wasps, as there are with any loss, and perhaps most prolific was the lack of cohesion and energy in defence in the last 30 minutes, which effectively lost them the game. The scrum also struggled, and although it would be easy to blame this on the players still not being accustomed to the new engagement sequence, there are serious questions over whether or not Wasps have enough quality in the front row.
The arrival of tighthead Fabio Staibano could well help Wasps’ stability at the scrum this season, whilst concerns over the defence becoming tired in the final 30 minutes could be attributed to it being the first game of the season, with players not quite up to full fitness yet.
All in all, signs are extremely positive for Wasps, especially when you consider the performance against Harlequins was without likely starters Stephen Jones and Ashley Johnson, both of whom will bring a wealth of experience to a young and growing side.
Although they should have won the game given they had what seemed an unassailable lead, securing two bonus points against the current champions is nothing to be ashamed of. Should they be able replicate the kind of form they showed in the first 50 minutes of the game throughout the season, then a return to the Heineken Cup next year seems a distinct possibility, whilst regaining their status as genuine title contenders may follow soon after.
By Alex Shaw