Ravaged by injury and inconsistency in a disappointing season, Wasps find themselves travelling to the home of the Exeter Chiefs this weekend to battle for the title of 8th spot in the Aviva Premiership. It is hardly the position they desired heading into the last weekend of the season, though this match will contain an air of poignancy as Wasps bid farewell to some familiar faces.
Popular full-back Mark van Gisbergen will be leaving the club along with fellow key players Dave Walder, Serge Betsen and Ben Jacobs. As a club stalwart himself, lock Richard Birkett is well placed to value some of the departures.
“I think Gis (Mark van Gisbergen) has been here for almost as long as I have!” commented the lock, who has been with Wasps since joining in 1998.
“He’s just great to have around the place and will be missed. Dave Walder has pretty much led the side over the past few years and he’ll be a big miss as well.”
A final day match away at Exeter with little to play for is unlikely to have been the players’ ideal scene of departure, as Birkett agrees, but the second row insists they will not dwell on it.
“I doubt it’s the way that they would have liked to have gone out but these things happen. It’s just important that we give them a good send off,” said Birkett.
The burly lock came through Wasps’ academy ranks and has remained at the club ever since, revelling in their domestic and European success along the way. But these are now changing times for London Wasps with the glory years an increasingly distant memory. Welsh fly half Nicky Robinson and England hooker Steve Thompson lead the players heading to Adams Park next year, with Wasps hoping that these names can counterbalance the departures they face.
Wing Richard Haughton is just coming to the end of his first season for Wasps having joined from Saracens and is excited for the times ahead.
“Nicky Robinson’s a Welsh international and obviously Steve Thompson’s a World Cup winner, so these will boost the side. Its always important to have world class players in your team and these guys are good examples,” said the flying winger.
Indeed next season may be one that Wasps can target. With World Cup calls robbing many top teams of their star players, Wasps roster will be largely untouched, bar one or two notable exceptions, and Haughton sees this as a chance for Wasps.
“There will be a few going away but hopefully it should be a big chance for us to get in a strong position”, said Haughton.
Birkett agrees: “Hopefully in November we’ll be in a strong position and challenging the likes of Northampton and Leicester. The youngsters will really get a chance to put their hands up.”
There is an air of excitement around Adams Park about the heights their youngsters can reach. Certainly in the voices of Birkett and Haughton you can sense their anticipation too as they point to future stars Joe Launchbury, Elliot Daly and Christian Wade, all of whom will start this weekend.
“It will be a big match for Exeter who will want to be finishing above Wasps in their very first season,” began Birkett. “The youngsters who are in have earned their place in the side. We will be playing the very best team we can this weekend, we want to win.”
Birkett’s words will resonate throughout a side desperate to finish the season on a high. And what better way to bid farewell to old friends than with a victory.
By Tom James