Saturday 21 September 2019

Wasps capable of securing a victory that could turn their season around

Wasps rugby director Dai Young. Photo: PA
Wasps rugby director Dai Young. Photo: PA

Ian McGeechan

In my second period as head coach of Scotland, we went into the final game of the 2000 Six Nations Championship bottom of the table off the back of four defeats in a row. England, by contrast, had played four, won four and were chasing a Grand Slam up at Murrayfield.

What happened next, of course, went down in history, as Duncan Hodge's converted second-half try helped us to a 19-13 win.

I recall this match not to revel in a famous victory over England but to try to illustrate that even when you are going through a rough patch, sometimes all it takes is two or three key tactical elements to be agreed and worked upon by everyone in the squad, as happened that week. Add to it some positive energy and some sharp, slick training sessions and suddenly things start to look and feel very different.

Wasps, like Scotland back in 2000, have not been playing all that badly this season. But they are going through a terrible run of results. Tenth in the Premiership with four defeats from their opening six games, five defeats in a row in all competitions, another defeat against Ulster last weekend...

From going within a whisker of winning the Premiership in May it has been quite a fall from grace for Dai Young's team.

It's fair to say that today's Champions Cup match against Harlequins is massive - for both clubs. Both lost their opening game in the competition. Neither can afford to lose two in a row.

It comes back to what I said last week about the need to make a fast start in Europe. With competition now deeper than it has ever been, you simply cannot afford two defeats on the spin or you are effectively saying goodbye to playing in the knockout stages.

Wasps are at home at the Ricoh Arena today, so the onus is on them to win. And I think they will.

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Young is going through a tough period but he knows he will emerge on the other side. Not that he would ever use it as an excuse, but he has had to cope with the loss of some key personnel this season. Last year's key decision-making axis of Danny Cipriani, Jimmy Gopperth and Kurtley Beale is no more. Beale has left the club, Cipriani is injured.

To be honest, you miss that sort of quality as much in training as you do in the games. You do not build up that collective understanding through the week. That then reduces your tactical options in matches.

You end up playing a bit less rugby and you are left with what we are seeing at the moment; a team with a lot of good, attacking players playing slightly less rugby than they were last season, struggling to get quick ball, struggling to get over the gain line, becoming that bit more predictable.

Young will not panic. He has been through tougher times than this at Wasps - the club almost fell into oblivion a few years ago, remember. I think he will have been encouraged by the impact Rob Miller made at 10 when he came on against Ulster, with Gopperth moving to 12. He will probably have regretted not starting him there. Having Gopperth as a second option, with Elliot Daly outside them and Willie Le Roux behind, suddenly Wasps had more creative options, simply because key attacking decisions can be made one pass later.

I think the return of Matt Symons and Guy Thompson can also make a big difference for Wasps. Having those extra ball carriers naturally gives the attack more options and variety. Ulster were able to target Nathan Hughes last weekend because he was obviously the main ball-carrier. If he becomes one of six options then immediately Wasps are less predictable. Little things like that can allow you to build momentum. They provide some anchor points.

If Wasps can get their key focus areas accurate and error-free today, everyone - fans and players alike - will feed off that. Which brings me back to that match against England in 2000. I remember calling Andy Nicol over to my apartment in Edinburgh in the early part of that week and telling him, as our captain, how I felt we could beat England. Just two or three simple things; slowing the ball down at contact, targeting Neil Back in open play, that sort of thing.

I also met with the senior group of players, the likes of Gregor Townsend, Scott Murray and Budge Pountney as they, along with Andy, would be key to setting the tone for the week. Everyone took the tactics on board.

Training was super-sharp that week, to the extent that it was error-free by the Wednesday, at which point I decided that we might as well just try to relax a bit. We did a bit of off-road driving with Land Rover, some clay pigeon shooting, and had a cream tea on the Thursday!

I told the players they could not improve on what we had done in training on the Wednesday, we could only repeat it. And they did. Although we were 10-9 down at half time, the players came in and to a man they said, "we can win this". They saw that what they had done in midweek training was working out on the pitch and they were visibly growing in confidence.

Quins are dangerous opponents today, as Wasps know only too well, having lost their league encounter at the Ricoh just a few weeks ago.

Funnily enough, Quins are the opposite of Wasps at the moment, scoring tries for fun. It will not be easy stopping Marcus Smith, Jamie Roberts, Danny Care et al. But as La Rochelle showed last weekend, they are also conceding tries.

Wasps are at home. They badly need a result. And they will know that if they can win this one, it can turn their league form around, too. As long as Wasps have a clear game plan, and as long as the players have all bought into it, I think home advantage should see them through.


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