What a difference a year makes for London Wasps

Wasps

The looming threats of relegation and administration may now seem like a distant memory to London Wasps and its fans.

Last season, the club faced no end of adversities last season, which included retirements to key players and an unprecedented injury crisis more severe than any in my recollection of rugby in the professional era. The six-time league winners were supplanted from their usual place near the top of the table and thrust into a desperate relegation battle which they narrowly avoided on the last day of the season.

Although an 11th place finish could never be viewed as a success for a club with Wasps’ pedigree or ambitions, I’d put forward that it’s the best thing to happen to the club in years.

Whilst a drop down to the Championship proved the perfect tonic for Harlequins in the 2005/06 season, a similar situation for Wasps last season could well have seen the end of one of England’s most celebrated and successful clubs. The Ken Moss-led consortium which took over the club prior to the start of this season, saving them from administration, had just one prerequisite – avoid relegation.

Injury-induced retirements to the likes of Tom Rees, Steve Thompson and John Hart may have been heartbreaking to the Wasps faithful at the time, but in their own way may have helped the club transition from the difficult post-Lawrence Dallaglio era, by forcing the introduction of many of their young academy stars.

Winger Christian Wade was arguably the find of the season, thrilling fans up and down the country with his sensational pace and clever footwork, but forwards Joe Launchbury and Billy Vunipola also made an instant impact after being thrust into the rigours of first team rugby, as did centre Elliot Daly.

Despite the considerable potential these players offered, it was unfair to expect them to shoulder the burdens of professional rugby without problem in their first year of significant playing time, one of which was of course a lack of experience. Herein lies perhaps the biggest difference between this season and last, the maturation of these exciting young players.

Although the growth of these players has been critical in the turning around of Wasps’ fortunes, it would be unfair to overlook the impact of senior players such as Tom Varndell, Sakaria Taulafo and Marco Wentzel, not to mention the tactical nous of Dai Young in the recruitment of James Haskell, Ashley Johnson and Stephen Jones amongst others.

In addition, the acquisition of Shane Howarth as backs coach has proven just as vital as player recruitment. He has been invaluable in the process of turning the high promise of Wasps’ raw backline into one of the most potent in the Premiership, a fact confirmed by the club having earned more bonus points than any other side in the league thus far.

Off-field issues surrounding the club also seem to be progressing positively, with CEO Nick Eastwood stating on Sunday that the club is ‘now working on a financial plan which will put us in a much stronger position in the short to medium term. Once this is in place and confirmed, we can then really start looking to the future and finalising our long term aims and ambitions’.

For perhaps the first time since the club won their last title in the 2007/08 season, there is a real positive feeling surrounding the High Wycombe-based outfit, who currently sit in fourth place and are undefeated at their home ground, Adams Park.

It may be slightly early to make any definite predictions over final standings in the Premiership, especially with the challenging Six Nations period approaching, but the club and its fans should be feeling confident about the future, and if they can make it into the play-offs, then anything could happen.

By Alex Shaw

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

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13 comments on “What a difference a year makes for London Wasps

    • I might be being a tad vindictive here but might it be better for Wasps to start planning for the future now and let Vunipola play the rest of the season in the 2nd XV?
      I don’t doubt that he’d try his guts out for the rest of the season for the sake of international recognition and to impress his new owners but is he so good that it wouldn’t be better to shuffle the back-row around now?

  1. Great piece highlighting quite a turnaround over the past year. It’s nice to see that the backroom staff at Wasps are developing a proper plan and not turning to short-term stopgaps which could be detrimental to the future of the club. It’s a shame to see Vunipola move on but that is the way of the modern game.

    I think it’s a credit to players like Daly and Wade that they are making the headlines instead of some of the more established and previously more-familiar faces of Haskell and Palmer.

    Perhaps Sale could take a lesson from their Wycombe rivals in rising from the ashes.

  2. Interesting article about one of the most intriguing stories in the premiership this year.

    I couldn’t believe that some people were predicting Wasps relegation (and Sale for top 4) at the start of the year. To me it was Fairly obvious Wasps were going to be above the halfway mark. The baptism of fire given to those young players last year turned them into hard nosed stalwarts in the space of a season.

    I think thsi back five of forwards is as good as any other in the premiership.

    4. Launchbury
    5. Wentzel
    6. Johnson
    7. Haskell
    8. Vunipola

    I think they’re actually situated quite well to deal with the loss of Billy. Props are still their priority for recruitment next season. Sign a top rate tight-head and i think they’d be almost title contenders.

    Anyone else think that on Merrit Daly should be in the England side ahead of Jonathon Joseph? Not sure it should happen that soon though as they’re clearly nurturing JJ and have already committed the best part of a season to him.

    • Good call on picking Johnson as key addition to premiership in the pre-season review if I remember correctly!

      With Johnson a natural 8 they do have plenty of cover. From an England point of view I just home Billy can develop as well at Sarries as he has been doing at Wasps. Personally I felt he was better off at Wasps, more attacking/offloading/carrying rugby so their style suited him well. We shall see.

      • Purely from the perspective of what would help England i would have probably rather him stay at Wasps.

        However the areas of his game that are weak are fielding high balls (thats about 75% of all Sarries play so should get practice), ball retention at the base of the scrum and other more technical aspects long with discipline. All these areas are what Sarrie’s philosophy is all about. Perhaps the more conservative team will nurture his weak points? That’s the optimistic view anyway.

        • just on your point about fielding high balls, i agree it is a weakness for him. But the issue at Sarries is that they let Brits hang back and do all that kind of stuff, which is usually deemed to be part of the no8′s job.

          one reasons i feel that Billy chose to leave is the fact that Sarries have much more squad rotation than a club like Wasps. This means that guys like Joubert and Brown will get runouts at 8, giving Billy a bit of time off. This will obviously be viewed as a positive, because he will be more “fresh” for england. However i think that if this was part of his thinking, then it is a little premature, as he hasnt actually made the EPS officially yet…

          anyway, best of luck to the kid, and best of luck to Wasps. I am sure that they will do fine, backrow is an area of relative depth for them

  3. great article!

    on the loss of billy, i have to agree with Nick Hill and say that Wasps are actually quite capable of dealing with it. the back 5 is an area of real strength for Wasps. They have both Sam Jones and Jonathan Poff who could step in, with either Johnson or Haskell moving into the 8 shirt (Jones could even play there himself). Personally i would like to see Haskell play at 8 for a bit. He was dubbed “the Next Dallaglio” when he first came on the scene. and i think that England have so much strength at 6, and a fair few decent young 7′s, that haskell should be seen as an 8, to compete with Billy and Ben Morgan in the future. i would also like to see haskell given a few more opportunities to lead the team. i know he had one recently, but i feel that this could be a chance to see what he is really made of. its time for him to step up both for club and country and his leadership will definitely make him a more attractive option, especially to england.

    Another possible option in the absence of Vunipola would be to move Launchbury to 6, with Wentzel and Palmer in the 2nd row, Cannon on the bench. Also, not to forget that Wasps have Matt Everard in their squad, the former england u20 openside who forced Kvesic to play 6…

    Back 5 is not problem for Wasps.

    There are 2 names of players that i dont think have gained any recognition in this article, who i feel have brought some real stability to Wasps this season. the two number 12′s Masi and Chris Bell. I feel these two guys have added some real direct hard-hitting play in the wasps backline, which very nicely compliments the the likes of Wade, Daly and Varndell. The hard work by Bell and Masi allows the faster men outside them to express themselves.

    Dia Young has done some great things here, and long may it continue!

  4. Thanks for the comments guys.
    Just quick reply to Simo, would have loved to put in Bell/Masi and mentioned Jones/Swainston as youngsters but the article was already on the long side!
    For me Masi has been immense, he leads the defensive line in much the same way Fraser Waters used to back in the glory days of their Shaun Edwards-coached blitz defence.

    • No worries in not mentioning it, you can’t write about every little detail! :)

      it is a great article IMO. also loving the praise that Launchbury is getting, he is a great player. although i could be seen as slightly biased, seeing as he is a former teammate and a friend…

      really good article though Alex, and i am glad that someone is talking about the turnaround in fortunes of the club.

  5. will be interested to see if they can deal with leinster saw this post awhile ago wasn’t that interested in reading it until we drew wasps in the QF didn’t realise they were going so well in the Premiership. very good article

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