Well, not long to go now until Saracens vs Wasps, without question the biggest game of the season. At high noon on Friday squads will be confirmed and there will be a number of match ups which will immediately catch the eye. Cipriani vs Farrell, Launchbury vs Itoje, Le Roux vs Goode, Wade vs Williams, are just four amongst many. Fans of both teams would probably be able to predict the line ups now, but for both Wasps and Saracens, the choice at number eight is possibly the most intriguing and open to question. Nathan Hughes and Billy Vunipola have both had fairly wretched seasons, pretty much decimated by injuries. Both are rumoured to be available for selection, and it would be no surprise if both heavyweight back rowers are thrown in from the start.
It is the two players they would be replacing if that happens which I want to focus on, because both are real unsung players, and share a lot of similarities. In the interests of balance, I will start off with Jackson Wray, one of the most consistent English back rowers in the league. Having read up on him for this, it was no shock to discover he is a one club man, a product of the Saracens academy. He is comfortable across the back row, and he has done an admirable job for the majority of this season filling the gap that Vuniploa has left. A good ball carrier, destructive tackler, his mates and Saracens fans love him, voting him players player and supporters player of the year in the past few weeks. If Vunipola starts, it may be that Wray gets shunted to one side of him, but I would guess he is more likely to offer cover from the bench. I have questioned some of the England selections in the past season, on the basis of form, and I would expect a fair few Saracens fans would be asking why Wray has not been anywhere near a squad this year based on his performances. Given the volume of forwards they lose to national duty, players like Wray are absolutely fundamental to the success of the team during the international periods. Individuals like him are the heartbeat of the club, consistent, dependable, and fully committed to the cause.
With the exception of the one club part, I could cut and paste the above characteristics, replace Vunipola with Hughes, and I would be describing Guy Thompson. I can state with confidence that I am not alone in being absolutely gutted that he is moving on at the end of this season. There is some genuine concern on forums about the hole in the squad he is going to leave when this season’s adventure is over, with no obvious replacement announced to date. Like Wray, he is a great ball carrier, and deceptively quick. During the Singha Sevens at the start of the season, I heard Ben Ryan in commentary saying that he tried to poach Thompson for the England sevens circuit when he was in charge of the national team, such is his athleticism.
In my view, one of Thompson’s best spells for the club was at the start of last season, when Wasps started the term on fire with five wins on the bounce. Thompson was key to that, scoring tries against Leicester and Harlequins, as well as helping set up one of the tries of the season at Franklin Gardens. He started that run of games at openside, due to injuries, and because of his influence and performances, was being talked about as a possible for England squad for the Autumn internationals. Sadly, like Wray, he has never being close to being capped. He has played all of the back row positions for Wasps with distinction, showing versatility and total commitment.
If there is one moment that probably best sums up Thompson’s Wasps career for me, it would be on January 17th 2016. Filling in for Hughes who was injured, Thompson rounded off a great individual display by scoring what appeared to be a match winning try in the left hand corner against Toulon. They were European kings at that time, and though Wasps were denied a famous victory, Thompson was praised to the hilt for his display. Unfortunately, in the process of scoring, he injured his foot, and his season was over. In his time at the club, he has suffered more than others with spells out of the team due to various misfortune, and it has often come at a time when he has established himself a key cog in the wheel. This season has been better in that regard, and it has been really pleasing to see him enjoy a good run in what appears to be his best position.
So with Saturday in mind, keep an eye out for these two. There is unlikely to be much attention on them pre match, with the commentators no doubt focusing on what might appear more high profile match ups. Either way though, when the game is over, no doubt both would have played their part in what promises to be a brilliant occasion.
Enjoy the game, remember it is only that, and fingers crossed that Wasps put together an eighty minute performance that books a place at Twickenham. Thanks for reading.