When looking at the Aviva Premiership, three of the teams who have undergone serious change in terms of personnel and structure have produced frustrating performances that have left supporters on their message boards questioning the future.
Bath, London Wasps and London Irish, either through vast changes in personnel or the beginning of a new coaching regime, have all set off at the start of this season with hope in their hearts but a sense of the unknown as to how much they could achieve. The consequence has generally been one of frustrating results, poor performances from individuals, and a patient wait for both players and coaches to gel.
Of the three, Wasps cause appears the most desperate. Being nilled at home against Worcester will hurt this morning, and for the rest of the week. It’s hard to determine whether the heavy defeat Wasps endured at Kingsholm last week was worse or not, but to lack the cohesion to finish off ample amounts of possession and territory against Worcester is soul destroying. There is plenty of wonderful young talent emerging in High Wycombe, spearheaded by Elliot Daly and Joe Launchbury, but a real lack of leadership and experience without the injured Tom Rees, John Hart and departed Simon Shaw and Steve Thompson. Add to that list the latest casualties of top try scorer Christian Wade and fly-half Nicky Robinson, and the reading is grim.
Fans at Adams Park this season have grown accustomed to flashes of brilliance against sides like Leicester and Saracens, but then had to cope with depressing defeats at home to Worcester and away at Newcastle. Dai Young is without doubt the right man to take the club forward, but it won’t be without a great deal more dark nights such as New Year’s Day until success returns.
If Wasps need any advice on how to bide their time waiting for a return to previous glories, they could do worse than ask fans at Bath. Some respite was duly delivered yesterday with a convincing win over London Irish. Finally dominating in the scrum, where they have been crushed in recent weeks, the ball was clean and Bath were well marshalled by Michael Claassens and Stephen Donald. Any side with that quality at half back should be competitive, but when you lose a spine in the scrum of Danny Grewcock and Luke Watson, plus Lee Mears and Pieter Dixon to injury, problems will be inevitable. Switching Francois Louw to 7 and Simon Taylor returning from injury at 8 meant that Bath could play it tight, which they tried and struggled to do against Northampton. One win doesn’t make a side a good one, but there is a glimmer now at the Rec, and Sir Ian McGeechan’s noose will have been loosened slightly.
As for London Irish, the loss of their Samoa contingent over the summer along with a new policy to blood youngsters is still blending together. Matt Garvey, Jamie Gibson and Tom Homer all have the talent to play international rugby, but they have never played a full season at Premiership level until now. The blooding of youth plus gelling recruits such as Shontayne Hape and Joe Ansbro, a new look centre partnership, Bryn Evans, Jebb Sinclair, Alex Gray and Jonathan Spratt to name a few, means that their results have been wildly inconsistent.
There is an argument that bringing in a new fly-half affects the whole mechanism of a side. Stephen Donald has only been at Bath for 8 weeks, whilst youngster Tom Heathcote is the reserve in his first season. Wasps have recruited Nicky Robinson from Gloucester, with Ryan Davis another recruit from Exeter. Irish moved Dan Bowden infield to the number 10 shirt, whilst recruiting Steve Shingler and Adrian Jarvis following the departures of Ryan Lamb and Chris Malone. Creating that understanding is never instant. It is not necessarily a reflection of the man in the 10 shirt, for all three starting fly-halves have put in big performances this season.
One side though that is making their changes work are the Ospreys. Gone are James Hook, Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne and Marty Holah, and yet they sit second in the RaboDirect Pro12. They have new half backs in Kahn Fotuali’i and youngster Matthew Morgan, a new captain and starting openside in Justin Tipuric, whilst Ashley Beck has endured an impressive run at 12 with George Stowers and another young player in James King forming a new back row.
The lessons that Bath, Wasps and Irish fans are learning now however will also be picked up on by English fans during the Six Nations. As the expected young players come in and old heads make way, such will the need to focus on performances rather than results increase. Whilst if the clubs continue to struggle there is the threat of relegation, mistakes are never punished more severely than at international level. Success tastes even sweeter when you remember the struggle to get there. It could be a long time before many fans savour it again.
by Ben Coles
Stephen Donald Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images