London Wasps and reigning champions Harlequins clashed at Twickenham and ignited this year’s Aviva Premiership. Quins managed to overturn a colossal 27 point deficit, scraping the win 42-40, after being cut into ribbons in the outside channels. Although Wasps need to assess their mental endurance and will rue not taking a massive scalp early doors, they will be more than happy with the rugby that they played. The boys from High Wycombe found themselves in trouble last season, only winning 6 of the 22 games and narrowly avoiding relegation in an end of season scrap with the unfortunate Newcastle Falcons. It was often said that they possessed arguably the most cutting backline in the league, but lacked the forward pack and stability to release it. Judging by Saturday, that issue has certainly been addressed.
The summer signings were fantastic for Wasps. Palmer strengthens the lineout and short game whilst Haskell, who is brutally powerful even at top international level, will test the best of defences. But the management didn’t fall into the trap of ignoring the promising back division. By bringing in highly experienced internationals Stephen Jones (104 caps – Wales) and Andrea Masi (62 caps – Italy) and handing captaincy to Scottish fullback Hugo Southwell (59 caps), they have created a strong, shrewd foundation, from which to launch the furious pace and electric feet of Wade, Varndell, Simpson et al.. In my opinion it is Masi who will make the biggest difference for this team. Aside from his experience, the last few years have seen him become a much more dynamic player. This auxiliary pace and strength have made Masi one of Italy’s most effective players and allowed him to claim the 2011 Six Nations Player of the Championship.
Despite all these changes many still thought Harlequins would dominate. The line up differed little from the one that laid waste to the league last year, which proved a well balanced, physical side open to aggressive attacking strategy. Some were surprised by the decision to play George Lowe on the wing and have Hopper in at 13. Lowe is a specialist centre and his partnership with Turner-Hall looks like one of the most natural and comfortable in the premiership. Hopper took Lowe’s shirt last year when he picked up an ankle injury, and although he showed attacking flair with ball in hand, he was also targeted for his lack of physicality in defence. With this in mind, perhaps Wasps best chance was to get Masi punching hard into Hopper’s channel and create space out wide for the back three. In reality, Wasps made their breaks further out, and it was Brown and Lowe who were exposed. Wade, Varndell and Southwell were able to repeatedly violate Quins’ left flank due to some efficient breakdown work from the pack and quick, accurate handling from the midfield.
The manner in which Christian Wade beats defenders and those as accomplished as Mike Brown, in such narrow channels is incredible. Twice he put the burners on and twice Wasps scored. The momentum was temporarily broken when Danny Care tapped a penalty which, after some typical strong running and offloads from the Quins, led to a try for right wing Tom Williams. Wade’s second try required him to stand Lowe up with a well executed slow-and-go before dotting down. Varndell was denied his second as the new TMO rules allowed a forward pass to be investigated in the build up.
A lot of people have vented a serious amount of angst in the direction of these novel regulations, and I find it hard to see why. It enables more decisions to be made correctly, why does it matter where the infringement took place? Comments like, “breaks the flow of play” and “needless loss of momentum” are inane. For example, in the Saracens-Irish match immediately after, Chris Aston would have probably gone unpunished for his needless shoulder charge. Instead he got the bin, as he deserved. The Irish flanker Ofisa Treviranus, who committed the same offense, was also reviewed and was lucky to escape with only a yellow. The TMO is there to aid the referee. Rugby offers so many intricate and varied issues happening in concert, and we ask one man to deal with it? There are bigger issues to deal with in sport.
Harlequins’ fight back from 40-13 with only 20 minutes to go was frantic. They showed composure and grit that Wasps have been lacking for years. Guest charged down a clearance and recovered to score. Nick Evans showed liquid handling to put Mike Brown in the corner, shortly before exploiting an unmanned area behind the defensive line. The pin-point cross field kick was perfectly weighted and Brown got underneath it to score his second. A multitude of quick offloads allowed Evans to break a desperate tackle and run in the fifth try. On his 100th appearance in the league Evans kicked the winning penalty and denied Wasps the perfect start to their season.
I sincerely hope Wasps will take from this experience, and become the team they have so much potential to be. A great start to the premiership for the fans, winning, losing and neutral. My only lament is that so many were deprived of the opportunity to witness this sporting exhibition. ESPN, like an insatiable media dinosaur, are gobbling up rugby piece by piece. Sport is no longer the freely given public spectacle it was; it’s now £13 a month.
All comments, opinions and furious rants welcome.