First off, a few reflections on Friday night. Some of the animated reaction to the last gasp defeat was understandable, given the late late try, and the fact Wasps had raced into a seventeen point lead. Like most fans, I was annoyed that the off the ball incident on Josh Bassett (amongst others) was not picked up by any of the officials, which contributed hugely to Sale gaining excellent field position for them to eventually score the winner from. It is easy to forget though that Elliot Daly’s try was very questionable, despite the referee having a second look, which arguably evens things out. However, Wasps are well placed with three games to go, and if the team cannot get the results needed from games with Worcester, Northampton and Newcastle, the club does not really deserve to finish in the top four.
After the exhilaration of last season, this year has been a ‘struggle’ at times, and Wasps best scenario now is probably third, with the real potential to finish outside of the play offs if they slip up again. When you finish top last season, that is not progress if you look at it in crude terms, and there has been plenty of discussion about reasons for this slight decline.
The obvious issue this season has been horrendous luck with injuries, which in comparison to last season, has stalled momentum and based on reports, negatively impacted on training and preparation. I am not sure this has been a problem just unique to Wasps though, and if you look around the Premiership, many teams have suffered similar difficulties. It has undoubtedly been a huge factor but I actually feel a big issue this season has been a decline in our recruitment, compared to the two previous seasons.
Look at last year, and the almost instant impact some of the signings made. Matt Symons, Tommy Taylor, Kurtley Beale, Danny Cipriani, all helped improve the team, despite the loss of George Smith and the Piutau brothers, who had been huge for Wasps the season before. For this campaign the club took a more measured approach in terms of volume of signings, but I personally feel the same quality has not been there when you reflect on the impact they have had with the year coming to an end. When you finish top, it is very clear that you are doing something right, but I believe the players bought in were quite conservative signings, aimed at boosting the squad but not necessarily the starting fifteen. Based on how the season has gone, I think this approach has backfired slightly, because it relies on luck with injuries, and individuals maintaining the same standards from last season, which I think has been an issue for at least a couple of players this year.
A good way to measure it is to consider your starting fifteen if everyone was fit (we can dream). I would speculate that Juan de Jongh would push hard for a place in the starting team, but that would probably mean Daly moving out to the wing, which many would disagree with. I am struggling to make a case for any of the other signings from last season. I am conscious some players take longer to settle (reference Willie le Roux) and certainly Marcus Watson, Paul Doran-Jones and Gaby Lovobalavu have fallen foul to the injury curse (as well as a very harsh suspension), which has not helped them build a case for selection. I still think they are squad players though, not players who are going to take Wasps to the next level, and in the case of Doran-Jones, will be moved on by next season, having made little impact.
I think further evidence of this issue is the announcement of the signings of Brad Shields and Lima Sopoaga for next season. The club has not invested in these two to sit on the bench, these are two players who will be thrown straight into the action next season. That is a different approach and strategy to last time out, where consolidation seemed more of a focus, rather than really improving the starting fifteen.
I am a realist, and think we were possibly a little bit spoilt last year with the volume and quality of signings the club welcomed in. From a financial point of view, that is not sustainable, and I think one of the best things about this year has been that youngsters like Jack Willis have had more opportunity to showcase their talents. Moving forwards, it is vital that the academy can contribute players to the match day squad, and there seems to be evidence now that this might be realised, with Tom West, Will Stuart and Tom Willis, for example, likely to feature more next term. I am sure the progress of the academy all contributes hugely to the planning that goes in place when it comes to recruitment, and is not something as fans we are always perhaps as familiar with as we could be.
I genuinely hope that last years signings come good, but I remain slightly dubious. Whatever happens between now and the Premiership final, let us just enjoy the ride. Supporting Wasps is certainly not dull, and there is always plenty to debate….