Jimmy Gopperth leads spirited fightback to stun Exeter
• Wasps 25-20 Exeter •
Dai Young can take heart after Gopperth upstages Danny Cipriani and Henry Slade.
It seldom pays to draw too many conclusions after only 80 minutes of a nine-month season but Wasps will take enormous heart from their first win on the opening weekend for five years. To come back and beat one of the stronger sides in the competition having been 17-8 behind at half-time is no mean achievement, particularly in the absence of virtually all their eagerly anticipated big-name signings.
When Kurtley Beale, Willie le Roux, Kyle Eastmond, James Haskell et al are fit and available to take to the pitch together after Christmas their director of rugby, Dai Young, really will have some enticing options at his disposal. But here was reassuring proof the spirit within the whole squad has not been diluted by the summer's comings and goings.
Given the additional off-field disruption of moving en masse to the Midlands from the club's former training headquarters in Acton, Young has even more reason to be quietly delighted. Rob Baxter did his best to be philosophical, pointing out Exeter reached the final last May despite losing their first fixture at Bath in similarly frustrating fashion. The coach will be disappointed, even so, that a contest that had seemed under control ended up with Wasps deservedly on top, thanks in large part to 15 points from Jimmy Gopperth and sterling forward efforts from Joe Launchbury and the new hooker Tommy Taylor.
In a game billed in advance as a showdown between two of England's most gifted fly-half candidates and cultured left boots, Danny Cipriani and Henry Slade, it was probably to be expected both would be upstaged by the right-footed Gopperth, shunted out to No12 to allow Cipriani to wear the 10 jersey on his first league appearance since rejoining the club from Sale.
Exeter fans will need no reminding of Gopperth's nerveless touchline kick to clinch last season's European quarter-final on this ground and he was similarly clinical here, contributing a sharply taken try and applying the coup de grace from the kicking tee. Not everything Cipriani attempted came off, with Dan Robson looking the sharper of Wasps' half-backs, while it is still too early to reach a definitive verdict on the merits of Slade's deployment at fly-half ahead of the experienced Gareth Steenson.
While it would be fair to say the Chiefs' midfield triumvirate of Slade, Sam Hill and Ollie Devoto did not instantly click, Baxter still has every intention of giving Slade "further opportunities there". Devoto, newly arrived from Bath, will also need a little time to settle and came dangerously close to being shown a card on his Chiefs' league debut. Referees have been ordered to be extremely strict on players attempting to kick the ball on the ground when prone opponents are in the vicinity so his heart would have skipped a couple of beats when replays appeared to show his boot making contact with Cipriani's head at a first-half ruck.
Young thought it should definitely have been a penalty to Wasps but absolved the player of any deliberate foul play: "It was an obvious kick through but there's nobody in that Exeter team who would look to kick any one of our players in the head. I don't believe for one minute it was intentional. It's not in their make-up … if it did make contact with his head it was a total accident."
He was equally unimpressed with Wasps' first-half work rate that helped a slightly flat but powerful Exeter establish what should have been a winning platform. To most in the ground, including Wasps' supporters, a familiar driven maul try for Thomas Waldrom, who scored five tries in two games on this ground last season, and a smart dummying score by Will Chudley looked to have given the visitors a winning edge either side of Gopperth's fleet-footed finish.
Instead Wasps rejected the orthodox script and narrowed the gap, another pacy breakout and good hands from Cipriani and Elliot Daly creating a try for Dan Robson. The momentum was suddenly with them and, with 16 minutes remaining, a lineout drive borrowed from Exeter's normal repertoire, finished by Taylor, edged them ahead. Slade narrowly missed a long-range penalty that could have regained the lead, leaving the stage clear for Gopperth to seal the deal in the 79th minute.
Both sides, one suspects, will be significantly sharper with half a dozen games under their belts, with Young firmly of the view the Chiefs – "There's not a shadow of a doubt in my mind they'll be a top-four side" – will again be strong challengers. For Wasps, though, there are many positives to carry into this weekend's derby with neighbours Leicester.
Given the club bid farewell to the outstanding George Smith and Charles Piutau in the summer and are missing their two main opensides Haskell and Thomas Young because of injury, this was as uplifting a first weekend as they could have wished for.
Miller; Wade, Daly, Gopperth, Bassett (Halai, 71); Cipriani, Robson (Simpson, 63); Mullan (McIntyre, 52), Taylor, Swainston (Moore, 62), Launchbury (capt), Gaskell (Symons, 52), Jones (Rieder, 75), Thompson, Hughes (Johnson, 62).
Tries Robson, Gopperth, Taylor. Cons Gopperth 2. Pens Gopperth 2.
Dollman; Woodburn, Devoto, Hill (Steenson, 74), Whitten (Short, 11); Slade, Chudley (Lewis, 57); Moon (Hepburn, 54), Cowan-Dickie (Yeandle, 54), Williams (Holmes, 48), Lees (Parling, 48), Welch, Armand (capt), Salvi, Waldrom (Dennis, 64).
Tries Waldrom, Chudley. Cons Slade 2. Pens Slade 2.
Referee T Foley.