Wednesday 13 December 2017

Wasps' veteran brothers in arms ready to strike

Revitalised Powell and Shaw can drag dark horses into contention, writes Eddie Butler

It is not exactly the style of Wasps to slip into contention by gliding into the slipstream of any leaders.

Graceful jostling for position is not necessarily what defines the Heineken Cup champions of 2004 and 2007. Take a chainsaw to the arms of their players -- Dan Ward-Smith's apparently have the largest circumference -- and there is plenty of room for "uncompromising and unyielding" to run around the sticks of rock.

But there they are, nestling in fifth place in the English Premiership, one place below the play-offs, and tucked in behind Toulouse in Pool 6 of the Heineken Cup. Almost unnoticed, Wasps have raised themselves and settled in, waiting for the moment to strike.

In European competition, that moment has arrived. Today they play Glasgow at Firhill, a thistly tester before they go toe to toe with Toulouse at Adams Park next week, in the final round of pool matches. At times like these, the brotherhood of big arms must pull together.

No two players better sum up the muscular forthrightness of Wasps than the second-row Simon Shaw and the No 8 Andy Powell. And yet they are also very different, a sign that within the blindingly obvious requirement to have power and size, there is scope for variety.

Shaw came to Wasps from Bristol when he was hardly a spring chicken, back in 1997. He was 24 then and now, well, it's pointless going on about his age. Since he has come this far it's hardly going to make any difference. The eight months between now and the World Cup are a blink.

The opening chapters of his international career were never as simple.According to Clive Woodward, back in the build-up to the World Cup campaign of 2003, he was too like Martin Johnson to be a partner for the captain. For somebody who had a unique style of play -- a declaration of "I am not a lunk" -- this must have been slightly confusing. Perhaps he tried too hard to prove that he could be a hulking presence.

In 2004 he was sent off against New Zealand, for dropping a knee on an All Black. He was reduced to the ranks of the reserves, only being called up for the 2005 Lions tour as a replacement for Malcolm O'Kelly.

His international destiny began to change in 2007, when he was at the heart of the England side that turned themselves completely around, within the merciless workings of the tournament itself, and went to the World Cup final. And then came his finest hour, the second Test in Pretoria for the 2009 Lions, when he unleashed a performance that will go down as one of the most breathtaking of all time.

Perhaps because of that special day, it now seems that a little good fortune may accompany him through what remains of his career. Just when it seemed that even Shaw might be a touch too old for the youthful England of today, fate intervened on his behalf.

He is almost the only trouble-free second-row around, what with the nine-week suspension handed out to Dave Attwood, the injury to Courtney Lawes and the possibility of Tom Palmer being unavailable as England and the French clubs send for those briefed in the Law of Rugby.

Just as sympathetically lit by the twilight sun is Powell. He rode into London red-faced this season, down a hard shoulder of embarrassment. Hunger can take a big man to many places, but rarely in a golf buggy down the M4 to the Cardiff West services for a bap.

The early-morning excursion after Wales played Scotland last February could have been the end of a player never knowingly extolled as a model of temperance.

But the wild Powell has played with a reinvigorated rugby zeal for Wasps, rediscovering at the age of 29 his drive with the ball and losing his tendency to surrender it in contact. It just so happens that the difference between the Wales team that could not nail down a big game in 2010 and one that may yet be a World Cup force in 2011 may be a hard-running, ground-gaining No 8. A golden opportunity presents itself to Andy Powell.

So there they are today, Powell and Shaw, large arms linked as brothers for Wasps in the first of their major campaigns of the year. They will have others -- the Premiership -- together.

And they will also soon undo their binding and forget that at their age they should know better, and hurl themselves into the savagery of Wales v England. No, Wasps don't do elegant jostling for position. It's probably just as well.

Glasgow v Wasps,

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