A new season and with it comes excitement, expectation, hope and harsh reality. Questions loom as always – did Wasps peak in the season 2016-2017 when they reached the Premiership Final ? Last season they were distinctly second best to both Saracens and Exeter, who were by far and away the best two English club sides, yet can Wasps bridge the gap?
On the face of it that would appear extremely unlikely. They have parted company with Danny Cipriani and James Haskell, both club legends who will both be missed for everything that they have done and given to the club in the their two stays, especially Cipriani who was quite outstanding last year; the vastly under rated yet massively influential Guy Thompson and the injury plagued Kyle Eastmond who, when fit, was arguably Wasps’ best centre, bar Elliot Daly.
Add to that the long term injuries to the points machine and hugely committed Jimmy Gopperth, young tyro Jack Willis and the ever improving Alex Reider, all of whom could be out for the majority of the season; further injuries to Jake Cooper-Woolley and TJ Harris, both of whom are likely to be missing for the first few months of the season and the late return of Willie Le Roux who is still on international duty, then things might appear a little bleak.
However, Wasps do not do excuses. It is not part of their DNA. From humble beginnings in Sudbury in North West London, they have maintained their heart, spirit and soul, and indeed humility, despite their big move to the excellent Ricoh Arena in Coventry. Furthermore, head coach Dai Young remains as phlegmatic as ever, his feet firmly rooted on the ground.
As always, Wasps will rely heavily on their hardcore home grown English talent, the likes of their evergreen captain Joe Launchbury, the talented footballing skills and pace of Daly, the electricity and speed of Christian Wade who, for some reason, seems to be continually overlooked by Eddie Jones, the sniping and eye of Dan Robson and Joe Simpson, as well as their forever loyal servants in Rob Miller, Josh Bassett, James Gaskell, Kiernan Myall, Matt Mullan, Tom Cruse and Will Rowlands, who is fast developing into quite some player.
However, it is the Wasps summer recruitment policy that has really caught the eye. Not only have the club added some international marquee players but have also recruited arguably some of the best players from the Championship.
Internationally Wasps have turned predominantly to New Zealand. Fly half Lima Sopoaga, who has literally just landed on these shores, comes highly rated, back row / second row Brad Shields has already hit the headlines for his somewhat premature selection for England before he had even set foot in this country yet, notwithstanding that, he remains a big talent and winger Ambrose Curtis completes the trio. In addition, 34 capped Georgian prop Zurabi Zhvania joins the ranks too to add some bulk.
Wasps have invariably had big successes with their foreign imports, with whom the club’s ethos seems to resonate. In recent times the likes of Charles Piutau, Kurtley Beale and George Smith have all excelled in the black and gold and Le Roux has been quite an inspiration this past year, despite something of an indifferent start.
They follow the likes of Trevor Leota, Rob Howley, Serge Betsen and Rafa Ibanez from yesteryear who have all become club legends in their own right. “Once a Wasp” and all that.
Yet it is the recruits from the tier below that are arguably of greater interest and intrigue, four of whom seem to offer the greatest potential. Centres Michael Le Bourgeois, 28 from Bedford; Ross Neal, 22 from London Scottish; fly half Billy Searle, 22 from Bristol and flanker Joe Atkinson, 26, also from London Scottish have all proved themselves to be very adept performers at Championship level and it will be fascinating to see if they can prove themselves and make a mark in the Premiership. After all, Guy Thompson proved that it can be done when he arrived from Jersey, with similar hopes and expectations.
However, personnel is one thing, it is the style and physicality of play which really determine a team’s fortunes. In recent times, Wasps have delighted many with their exciting and attacking play, scoring tries from all over the pitch, yet they are often taken apart upfront by the bigger and better teams. Forward demolition does not win rugby matches.
Whilst Wasps ever increasing band of Midlands based and traditional London supporters will not want to see any diminution in their team’s creative and attacking instincts, and in this regard it will be fascinating to see how Sopoaga slots in at number 10 for he certainly has big boots to fill after the loss of Cipriani, they will at least demand some form of parity up front to give them some chance against the best teams.
Despite the loss of back row players Haskell and Thompson and the injuries to Willis and Reider, Wasps have strengthened with the permanent signing of South African Nizaam Carr, who proved a notable success in his three months with the club last season and, allied to a fit and rejuvenated Nathan Hughes, plus Shields and Thomas Young, Wasps arguably have a back row to match anyone. Allied to this, new boy Joe Atkinson and Tom Willis, brother of Jack, plus the return to the ranks of the bulldozing Ashley Johnson, who remains a serious impact substitute whenever he plays, Wasps should not fall short in this department.
The front five remain a concern but the return to fitness of hooker Tommy Taylor is a big boost. The new Georgian prop Zhvania plus the arrival of England discard Kieran Brookes certainly add experience and ballast to the front row, but will it be enough ?
So, it seems as though Wasps’ fortunes will very much depend on the ongoing excellence of the likes of Launchbury, Wade, Daly, Le Roux and Robson; the quality and speed with which the new recruits integrate and contribute, where all eyes will be on Sopoaga, and the ability of the Championship recruits to step up and arguably, above all, Wasps’ ability to compete and dominate up front.
For such an ambitious club, a top four place in the Premiership plus advancing from the pool stages of the European Cup are the minimum requirements. However, as for silverware, it does feel as though that is likely to be a step, or pass or kick too far.