Wasps End of Season Review
Wasps season review: Paul Smith of Coventry Telegraph picks his highs and lows of Dai Young's side campaign
Before he reaches for the suncream and his cricket bat, Paul Smith looks back on Wasps season and picks out a few personal highlights.
Did Wasps exceed expectations?
Prior to the start of the campaign it was difficult to assess what was a realistic target for Wasps. They had scrambled into the top six on the last day of the previous season and seemed on an upward curve, but a lot would depend on the impact made by new signings and how quickly they could integrate.
The first half of the season was blighted by inconsistency, with major highs against Toulon and Leinster being offset by poor displays at Sale, Leicester and against Exeter at home. However, as combinations became established, and confidence grew Wasps dominated all-comers through the Six Nations period, and had clinched a play-off spot a month before the season's end.
Unfortunately, the last few weeks of the season failed to match the heady days of February and March, but being semi-finalists in both competitions was an excellent achievement, and certainly an outcome which Dai would have accepted before the season began.
One of the candidates for new signing of the year, Charles Piutau, made one mistake in the entire season - unfortunately a costly one in the semi-final at Exeter - and did some remarkable things. His brother Siale brought real cohesion to Wasps' midfield and Dan Robson, who had to wait until January to get two consecutive starts, was on the fringes of the England side by early May.
But questions will be asked in Parliament if George Smith does not add this award to the less prestigious (ahem!) trophies already located on his groaning mantlepiece. Despite having 111 Australian caps to his name, and owning every personal honour the game can bestow, when Dai signed the 35-year-old flanker quite a few of us had doubts about how brightly his flame still burned.
Nine months later we are reflecting on how lucky we have been to see one of the game's all-time great’s play a season in Coventry and wishing there was more to come.
A brilliant player and an extremely smart yet humble man. Go well, George. George Smith won the RPA Player Player's of the year.
So to my Wasps Forward of the Year.
I'm not allowing George to dominate this column, so my shortlist comprises a few other names.
Being something of a traditionalist, the club's co-captaincy arrangement is not one I warm to, but James Haskell and Matt Mullan seem fine leaders who have both enjoyed excellent seasons.
Mullan never has a bad game, and while he doesn't possess the eye-catching ball-carrying skills of Mako Vunipola, for me he does the day job at the coal face better than any of his international rivals.
Haskell is a superb No.6, whose defence, work rate and close-quarter impact are consistently outstanding. The debate about his suitability to play on the openside is for another day.
Nathan Hughes was closely marked in the final third of the season and his impact on games reduced accordingly. But since his starting point was the series of stellar pre-Christmas displays, this is hardly surprising.
However, my winner is prop Jake Cooper-Woolley, whose meteoric rise has earned him a spot on the Saxons tour of South Africa. He is a very strong scrummager whose all-round contribution has improved rapidly as the season has progressed.
The Back of the Year
This saw plenty of good candidates, including Christian Wade, who looked very sharp in the season's closing weeks, Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and both Piutaus.
However, my choice is Dan Robson, who arrived at Wasps last summer seeking more game-time than Gloucester allowed him during the course of last season. I have to confess there were times through the autumn when I wondered how that would happen, since Joe Simpson, who has been a fixture at scrum half for some years, was at worst maintaining his form and possibly even raising his standards.
Robson's break came when Simpson was injured against Leinster in January and he took his chance to spectacular effect. The knowledge that Simpson's recuperation period meant a run of games lay ahead seemed to settle him and he quickly became a ticking time bomb which few opponents could handle.
Robson's game-management is sound, his pace is electric, his kicking very improved and while his service is not yet 100 per cent reliable, it is well on the way.
His Saxons selection was very well deserved, and given that Simpson is Rio-bound, had Eddie Jones opted for a third No.9 in Australia he could well have been the man.
Try of the Season
Plenty of contenders here too - including a couple of Christian Wade's six at Worcester. Daly's opening gambit at Harlequins stood out, as did his try against Leinster at the Ricoh and Ruaridh's score against Toulon. But the crazy couple of hours at the Allianz which saw the soon-to-be European champions demolished to the tune of 64 points produced eight touchdowns, and in among them Thomas Young's score was a superb team score. Having just posted their opening try, Wasps attacked direct from the kick off, through some fine handling and running lines, which ended with the Welsh flanker going under the posts in support of Bassett.
Most Memorable Match
Can I really look beyond the St Valentine's Day Massacre at Saracens, the double over Leinster, the home win over European champions Toulon or the incredible European Cup quarter-final win over Exeter?
Yes. For me, the season's turning point came at Northampton, when a scratch side including the likes of James Downey, Alex Rieder, Brendan Macken and Josh Bassett produced the club's first win at Franklin's Gardens in living memory.
Wasps built a big first half lead which they defended with comfort, and in the process silenced the normally passionate Saints following. The confidence, belief and spirit gained from this result carried Young's team through some tough days when they failed to hit their straps, such as the following weekend against Newcastle, but more importantly allowed them to comfortably dispose of Leicester and edge out Exeter at home.
Who is the Bolter?
With a nod to Messrs Robson, Cooper-Woolley and Siale Piutau, not to mention Kearnan Myall whose season was cut short by injury at just the wrong moment, the player who has emerged from the shadows most prominently is Thomas Young.
George Smith's innate modesty prevents him from claiming much credit for Thomas' development (as I recall it went something along the lines of: "Mate, he was a very good player before I got here") but training with a legend who is entirely open to sharing the tricks of his trade can surely only have helped the 24-year-old.
Thomas has battled harder than most to get a run in the side, since his father Dai has applied the "overly-fair-to-others" approach found in schoolteachers refereeing their own team. But he got his head down and worked at his game, and when the moment finally came he impressed so much playing out of position on the blindside flank while Haskell was away with England, that when the club captain returned many observers viewed ownership of the No.6 shirt as a discussion item.
The Champagne Moment
It is perhaps obvious, but I cannot go beyond the sheer drama of Jimmy Gopperth's last-kick winner against Exeter. Anyone who has ever sunk a putt on the 18th, hit the last ball for six, potted the final black or scored the winner in a penalty shoot-out knows the feeling, but not many of us have done that in front of 24,000 people plus millions on TV! Add in the scale of the occasion, and the pandemonium that followed, and we have a "100 Great Sporting Moments" entry.
And on a less serious note..... The Brown Ale Moment
Step forward Rob Miller whose tortoise-like touchdown in the first game at Exeter was almost catastrophic. The full back totally misjudged the speed with which the Chiefs' James Short was arriving from distance while he waited for what felt like minutes for the ball to cross the goal-line. The pair's resulting desperate dives led (literally) to an excruciating photo finish after which, much to Wasps' relief, the TMO was unable to determine who got the ball down first. Rob of course had already strolled to the 22, with the confident air of a man who had the situation entirely under control...while doubtless trying to avoid the thought of what Dai might say if a try was awarded!
Favourite Dai Moment
Dai's reputation as being a little hardline and not smiling much is totally unjustified, as his reaction to a questioner from one of the nationals following the home win over Toulon ably demonstrated. While basking in the immediate post-match euphoria of having just demolished the three-times European champs 32-6, Young was asked: "What do you need to improve for next week?" He paused for a second for comic effect before replying: "You're a very hard man to please!" Priceless!
Interview of the Year
have been fortunate to have the chance to speak to some very interesting people in the course of the last nine months, and in particular enjoyed hearing from Joe Simpson in Solihull, Christian Wade after his six-timer, Sam Jones while I was on a racecourse (don't ask!) and learning about Ashley Johnson's "hair-off" with Adam Jones. But the time spent in the company of Charles and Siale Piutau really stands out.
Their friendly demeanour and brotherly banter allied to the outlook on life brought by their upbringing and beliefs made for a fascinating 20 minutes.
Meeting a legend
The last word must belong to the great George Smith. The Aussie superstar had skippered Wasps to the incredible victory at Saracens and duly arrived to speak to the media around 45 minutes after the final whistle. The match had taken place on a Sunday afternoon during the Six Nations, which meant numbers from the nationals were somewhat depleted. Those who were there had already heard from Dai and Mark McCall, written their pieces and gone. Therefore the remaining media consisted of BBC CWR's Clive Eakin and myself, in an enormous room, which George had to walk the length of to reach where we were both deep in concentration. "I am so sorry for keeping you waiting," he began. Since we both were upto our necks in post-match activity, it was of course the last thing he had done, and since he is the legendary George Smith, we were hardly likely to object.
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