Four games in. Fifteen points on the board. Exeter and Saracens are looking ominously strong, but Wasps have got a points tally I believe all supporters would have settled for at this stage, and are sitting third in the table.
There has been plenty of encouraging individual displays so far and defensively against Sale, first quarter aside, the intensity was a pleasure to see. Sale had what seemed like a ten minute spell camped on the Wasps line, which if they had scored from, could have made the last few minutes a completely different proposition. As it was, Wasps forced the error, won a scrum penalty, and made their way up to the other end to grab a valuable bonus point to round off an important win.
During this period, one player particularly stood out for me, and that was Nathan Hughes. Defensively during that spell he was immense, twice getting under the ball to stop Sale from scoring. Attacking wise he sealed the five points with five points, smashing his way over the line for his third try of the season. It would be four tries from four games if it wasn’t for some heroic defending from Worcester during the first game of the season, which on the back of a hat-trick against useful Irish opposition pre-season, suggests he is a good bet to be top scorer this term based on his current form. For the stat lovers out there as a comparison, the number eight did not score any tries last season, and saved his five pointers for Europe only the season before. Look at him now. Top of the charts for ball carries in the league, second for turnovers, second highest scoring forward, and most importantly, seemingly back to his best.
He got some criticism last year from both club and international supporters about his form, which I found a little startling. Some must have very short memories; let us wind back the clock just over twelve months ago. He was incredible in the premiership final in 2017, without question Wasps best player, and would have been crowned man of the match if Wasps had held on. Though his penalty led to the equalising kick, (harsh interpretation by the ref, but he clearly warned him) his role in the final throughout was influential.
Nathan Hughes on the charge vs Exeter, 8th September 2018.
He then went off to Argentina and played well in both England victories, and on reflection could be considered unlucky to not get the Lions call when Billy Vunipola was ruled out. Following the tour, he started last season strongly against Sale, setting up a couple of tries, and despite Wasps form dipping, he was one of the better players early season before limping off in the game against Bath. After that, it was a wretched spell for him, injury wise. Injured in camp for England in November, injured for Wasps against La Rochelle, clearly not fit against Scotland and injured again, and then was perhaps unwisely rushed back for the premiership semi-final, where he struggled with the pace in a tough game for the club. In short, he barely featured, and when he did, he clearly was a long way from being fully fit for much of last year.
Nathan Hughes against La Rochelle, one of his last games in 2017-18.
As mentioned, despite these fitness issues being obvious, fans started to question his value to the team. Why? Prior to his injury issues he was quality, and that quality does not disappear. For example, on Saturday he had a very mixed first half, but did not shy away in the second, steering the team to victory with another try and leading the defensive rearguard. He looks strong, is causing havoc with ball in hand, and appears to be absolutely horrible to play against. Put simply, now he is fit, he is looking like the player who won countless man of the match awards in his first couple of seasons here. Is it really surprising he struggled when he was playing with injury issues?
One of the reasons for writing this is to remind us all that rugby players are human. When the players who are currently injured come back in, some might hit the ground running, others might take longer to regain their top form. We all need to be mindful that most players carry niggles into matches, and those who are really influential are often encouraged to return quicker than they should do because of the value they bring, when even fifty percent fit. Hughes is probably in that camp, and credit to him for playing at times last season when others would not have done, under the same circumstances. I just hope he gets a really good injury free spell now for both his club and country, so he can remind us all why he is one of the standout players in the league.
To finish off with, I saw a headline earlier today that he is out of contract at the end of the season, and there is some doubt about whether the club can afford to keep him. Based on how he has started this term, can Wasps afford not to?
Thanks for reading.