Last year’s Premiership finalists find themselves languishing in 10th place after six rounds – with only two wins and a measly 10 points to their name; their worst run in over three years. At this point last season, Wasps had only just lost their first game (coincidentally to Saracens, their tormenters last weekend) and had opened their account with five wins and three try bonus points.
On Sunday, they were comprehensively outplayed by Saracens. They aren’t the first side to have suffered at the hands of the two-time European champions, but you expected a better showing from a Wasps side that played some truly gorgeous rugby last season. So, what is going wrong?
The first, and most obvious problem is a crippling injury list. Dai Young (half) joked he didn’t need to bother with team selection as he only had 24 bodies available to fill the match-day 23. He also had 14 players confirmed as injured for the Bath game the weekend before, which from a senior squad of 40 is a huge handicap.
And they are missing vital players; such last season’s player of the season Jimmy Gopperth, who tore defences apart alongside Danny Cipriani (also injured). Rob Miller had to fill in at flyhalf on Sunday – a great fullback and talented player, but nowhere near the same league as the other two in the 10 shirt. Nathan Hughes, Kyle Eastmond, James Haskell and Tommy Taylor have all been noticeable absentees at one stage or another. Add to that a world-class player like Kurtley Beale leaving the club and Wasps are in dire need of quality reinforcements.
Dai Young’s resources are stretched thin – a problem exacerbated by his squad size, which has further decreased with each new season, moving from 45 to 43, to 42, and now to just 40 players.
Young has laid the blame for this squarely at the foot of the salary cap, which has been frozen at £7 million for the next few seasons. This is to try and keep the smaller teams in the hunt and make the league competitive – and is arguably being very successful, as the recent form of teams like Newcastle has shown.
However, as Young explained to BBC 5live, this is all very well but player salaries have not stayed static. Players, like any professional, demand wage increases on a vaguely regular basis (for example when negotiating a new contract). But especially when they are playing well and achieving success for the club – such as a Premiership final – as not only can they point to this success as a reason for a salary increase, but they attract interest from other clubs, their market value goes up and they have greater leverage.
The only option, if there is no more money in the main pool, is to cut a few players on the fringes: ‘The salary cap is not moving and players want to get their market value … Our squad is getting smaller to keep the quality players we have got,’ Young explained.
A big injury list and a small squad means Young also cannot rotate in some (or any) positions to keep players fresh, rest small niggling injuries or respond to form (Willie le Roux, for example, looked way off the pace against Saracens). This creates something of a rut – one in which he can’t try anything different to allay a losing run as he has no options.
You add to this the European schedule, which sees Wasps take on Ulster this Friday – just five days after that punishing match with Saracens – and you really start to feel for Wasps. In fact, Young opted against playing Joe Launchbury on Sunday; a seemingly bizarre move given Launchbury is one of their best players. One suspects, however, it was done with an eye on the Ulster game. The old adage is Europe may not be won in the opening rounds, but it can certainly be lost. The marathon of the Premiership offers a greater chance to make up lost ground than the heavyweight bout of the Champions Cup.
Perhaps the bigger cause for concern is that teams look to have figured out Wasps’ gameplan.
After Harlequins won their maiden Premiership title in 2012, teams spent the whole summer analysing their rapid offloading/keep-the-ball-alive gameplan and came into the next season with a plan to combat it. Something similar has happened with Wasps – their rugby scared teams last season and you can bet coaches spent a good portion of their summer holiday analysing how to nullify their attack rather than relaxing on the beach.
In the Bath game the other week, Young told the Coventry Telegraph ‘Bath didn’t attack the contact area and put men in … They kept as many men on their feet as possible, and kept their width because they were worried about us going outside them.’ This tactic, combined with this year’s rule changes which mean fewer and shorter rucks, and more ball-in-play time, means there is far less space for Wasps’ rapid backs to exploit.
Meanwhile, teams have learned not to kick the ball and allow Wasps to counter attack – one unnamed opposition coach was quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying ‘Why on earth would you kick to a back three with Christian Wade and Marcus Watson in it?’ Why indeed…
Meanwhile, their opposition are targeting Wasps’ flyhalves: Gopperth made an astonishing 23 tackles in the Exeter game (and missed three), and while Rob Miller made a comparatively paltry 9 against Saracens, that was still three times as many as his opposite number, Alex Lozowski. Without the usual multitude of playmakers in their backline, Wasps are running everything through their 10. Opponents know if they target the flyhalf, force him to make tackles and tire him out, they can cut off the Wasps backs at source.
Reasons for optimism
It is important to stress – this is not a disaster. And I certainly hope the Wasps senior management don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Or rather, don’t ape their football counterparts and decide change is needed. This is something beginning to creep into rugby (Mike Ford and Richard Cockerill are recent casualties) and I hope it doesn’t catch on. Dai Young has done an incredible job resurrecting this club from the nadir of almost relegation in 2012. The only reason I even raise this is because when you hear coaches start to say things like ‘We’ve got to get more out of this group, and as far as I’m concerned, the first thing we have to look at is us coaches. It’s my responsibility to get it right’, you get a little concerned.
Players will begin to return from injury and that will give Young some options – both in which players to pick and what tactics to employ. Let’s not forget last season’s eventual victors, Exeter lost four of their opening seven matches at the start of 2016-17 – there is a long way to go yet. But something does need to change. Space is at a premium this season and Wasps need to come up with a plan to release their greatest assets – backs like Wade, Daly, le Roux and Bassett. It would help if their pack stepped up – they need to suck in defenders and fix them in the contact area to open up space out wide; something they didn’t do well enough last weekend.
(Also, players not turning their backs for a gossip when the opposition takes a quick tap and go penalty might be useful).
It may still take a bold man to bet against the team that produced such deadly attacking rugby last season from making at least the top six, if not the play offs, however, they know that with each passing week and points dropped that task gets a little harder.
What might be more worrying is Europe: Wasps face Ulster and Harlequins up first, and Young has already indicated there will be few players back from injury to bolster the squad for the Champions Cup matches. Lose both of those and qualifying for the knock-out stages might already be beyond them.
By Henry Ker