In another pulsating and compelling battle between these two East Midlands giants, Wasps eventually emerged victorious, but they made awfully hard work of it. Indeed it took three late penalties from fly half Lima Sopoaga to finally see off their spirited opponents when really they should have been clear long before the end and thus avoided such a tense and nail biting finale.
Leicester were reduced to 14 men just before half time with the sending off of lock Will Spencer but this setback seemed to spur them on and, in the first twenty minutes of the second half, they were completely dominant. They forced numerous penalties which George Ford converted into points, one of which resulted in a sin bin for Wasps’ Nathan Hughes, and a close range try from Sione Kalamafoni to take them clear.
Wasps finally emerged from their slumber yet it took another of their trade mark wonder tries starting from within their own half that pulled them back into the match, albeit this time from an unlikely source, South African centre Juan De Jongh. De Jongh is a committed player, organised and strong in the tackle yet not known for his explosive attacking talents until here when he took a pass just inside his own half. A feint and a side step saw him past the first tacklers, then he lit the after burners to take him clear and two further delicious side steps took him under the posts for a converted score, arguably his best moment in a Wasps shirt.
Indeed another of Wasps’ unsung backs, Josh Bassett, provided the spark for his side in the opening period. Firstly, collecting a charged down kick just outside his own 22, he saw a gap and pinned his ears back and ran half the length of the pitch before off loading to the onrushing Dan Robson who then cleverly flicked the ball up in the tackle to the supporting De Jongh to joyfully dive over. Secondly, he somehow leapt in the air and caught an inch perfect floated left footed kick from Elliot Daly and then had the dexterity to land and touch the ball down within inches of the whitewash in the in-goal area. It was quite some feat. At this point Wasps were 14 points clear and cruising.
However, in this age of bold attacking intent, 14 points really counts for little, especially for those sides playing Wasps. On numerous occasions last season they surrendered significant leads and it could so easily have happened here. The days of the Shaun Edwards water tight Wasps defence are long gone yet maybe this has coincided with a much more ambitious attacking approach from all sides in the Gallagher Premiership.
For all the recent high scoring matches in the league this season, with lots of tries and excitement, there is a niggling feeling that some matches are turning into the equivalent of the southern hemisphere’s Super 14, often mockingly referred to as a league where tackling and defence are given little attention when compared to the tougher, more gnarly English Premiership. Well, that is certainly no longer the case as eight or more tries are regularly being scored in league matches as defences are being opened up at will.
The Premiership is currently blessed with some outstanding attacking talent and forward thinking attack minded coaches which is leading to such high scoring affairs, particularly before the winter draws in. Danny Cipriani, despite his non selection for the latest England training squad, is tearing up trees down Gloucester way and gaining huge plaudits for the way he has started the season, and here George Ford, Eddie Jones’ preferred outside half, once again demonstrated his attacking prowess. It was not his best game but he still cleverly set up two tries for Jonny May with a deft low grubber kick for first and slight of hand for the second, plus an,other for full back Telusa Veainu after a jinking run. Add to that three conversions and three penalties it was some return for Ford.
Despite all the thrilling attacking play and nerve jangling finale, the match will ultimately be remembered for the sending off of Will Spencer for what was deemed a reckless high tackle cum shoulder charge on Wasps’ ducking hooker Tommy Taylor. In an era where player welfare is paramount this has to be seen as the right decision and it sends out a marker for all players that they must go low into a tackle otherwise they face punishment. Leicester interim head coach Geordan Murphy was scathing in his criticism of the decision in the immediate aftermath but has sensibly retracted his words during the course of the week.
Decisions such as these are invariably very close calls in the heat of the moment and there is always an element of sympathy for the player particularly the decision has to be reviewed on numerous occasions to establish quite how high the tackle was. What does seem slightly ludicrous however is that Spencer has now been banned for four weeks for this reckless challenge when his side playing for 40 minutes without him seems sufficient punishment.
Somewhat ironically his absence did not have a huge bearing on the outcome of the match. Whilst Leicester’s line out badly misfired in the second half, they do have other jumpers and can shorten the line out, so being one player short should not dramatically affect a team’s ability to function in this area. As to the scrum, it was not until the 79th minute did Wasps have a scrum on their own ball in the second half. Somewhat inevitably they forced Leicester back, were awarded the penalty and that really snuffed out Leicester’s final hope.
The tigers were tamed, but only just.