Friday, 23 January 2015

Champions Cup Preview - Wasps v Leinster

Individual moments don't just define passages of play, or games.  They don't just define seasons or cup glory.  They define careers, livelihoods – and the future of entire clubs.  Cast your minds back to April 2012, to the Rec, as Sam Vesty coasted in to score a try beneath the sticks for the West Country outfit, one arm raised in celebration.  A touchdown against Wasps would have denied the visitors a bonus point, and put the bottom club, Falcons, within striking distance with a head-to-head encounter to follow on the last day of the season.  Sam Vesty's try could have sent Wasps down.  Sam Vesty's try could, in the words of Nick Eastwood, Wasps CEO, have seen the club go bust. 
Enter Tom Varndell.  The flying finisher, now Bristol-bound, has never been known for his defence but he pulled off a miraculous try-saving tackle on his former Leicester colleague, chasing back and rolling him over to prevent the try.  Whilst we were all busy laughing at what a prat Vesty was, it perhaps overtook us that Varndell had rescued a bonus point.  Varndell, as it would transpire, had secured Wasps' future.

Fast forward just less than 3 years and things are a little different.  A new home, new prospects and a new atmosphere surround the club.  The screams of protest from 4 months ago, when it was first announced that Wasps would be uprooted from their traditional London(ish) base, have been quietened and gradually replaced with murmurings of approval and acknowledgements of the necessity of the move – and that's not to mention the deafening roar of their fans (both old and new) who have packed out the previous two fixtures against London Irish and Wasps.  But Saturday's fixture against Leinster is the real baptism of the Ricoh Arena – as Eastwood says "the real culmination" of all the hard work that's been put into the project by so many people.
Because this is where Wasps want to be – facing off against the European heavyweights in a winner-takes all clash, with the opportunity to reach the knockout stages in Europe for the first time since they won the entire thing in 2007.  And it promises to be some spectacle.  Leinster haven't really hit their stride as yet and haven't really clicked under Matt O'Connor, but the performance against Castres last week was one to behold, with the likes of Sean Cronin and Jamie Heaslip oozing power and class.  They were given a scare in the home fixture against the English club (by Christian Wade in particular) but they're used to these knockout situations and they know a win or a draw will see them through.

Wasps have been hammered by the fact that Alapati Leiua is unavailable – the big centre has been magnificent for the hosts in recent weeks – but even that can't detract from a feel good-factor that pervades the club at the moment.  In particular, the back row of Johnson, Haskell and Hughes is probably one of the most physical around, and with the likes of Simpson, Wade and Varndell there is some serious pace to compliment it.  The side has balance and direction – something that hasn't been seen at Wasps for a fair while – and they know that a win will (barring Leinster grabbing 2 bonus points) see them top the group.
They face a stiff test on Saturday against one of Europe's elite but, once again, it only takes a moment for somebody to write a new chapter in the Wasps' history books.

A big thanks to Nick Eastwood, who spared a few minutes with me earlier today.

Wasps Team News
Dai Young makes two changes to the side that won 23-3 at Harlequins, James Gaskell starting at lock, while Ben Jacobs returns at centre with Alapati Leiua out with a knee injury.

Starting Line-up:  Miller; Wade, Daly, Jacobs, Varndell; Goode, Simpson; Mullan, Shervington, Cittadini, Davies, Gaskell, Johnson, Haskell (capt), Hughes.
Subs: Festuccia, McIntyre, Cooper-Woolley, Myall, Thompson, Jackson, Lozowski, Masi.

Key Player
Andy Goode.  He may not be stylish or especially fashionable, looking more like your local McDonald's restaurant manager than a professional sportsman, but on the pitch Goodey is as smooth and as effective as they come.  His performances this season have been nothing short of sensational – varying play magnificently, kicking over points with monotonous regularity and using his boot with supreme tactical awareness.  His skillset is right out of the top drawer – something he doesn't often get credit for – but it's his experience that will really stand him out as a key man for Wasps.  He's been in these situations before – for Leicester and for England – and knows the intensity that a winner-takes-all European contest brings; in such a pivotal position, he needs to be the calm head amongst his peers and control the emotions of those around him.

Leinster Team News

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor also opts for two changes with Kane Douglas and Dominic Ryan drafted into the pack.  Mike McCarthy and Jack Conan are on the bench after starting against Castres.  O'Connor has retained Marty Moore at tight-head prop ahead of Mike Ross in an unchanged front row alongside Michael Bent and Sean Cronin.
Starting Line-up: R Kearney; McFadden, Fitzgerald, Madigan, D Kearney; Gopperth, Reddan; Bent, Cronin, Moore; Toner, Douglas; Ryan, Murphy, Heaslip (capt).

Subs: Strauss, Hagan, Furlong, McCarthy, Conan, Boss, G D'Arcy, Fanning.
Key Player

Ian Madigan.  Being shunted out from his usual fly half role may not seem like the loudest ringing endorsement of Madigan's qualities, but with the vastly experienced Gordon D'Arcy being kept on the bench, it actually goes to show how much Matt O'Connor and his team value him, moving him to 12 just to keep him on the pitch.  Of course, he has had plenty of game time in the centre – he is a physical presence for a 10, and his ability to spot opportunities and space half a second quicker than others make him an ideal second distributor.  Leinster's real strength lies in bringing in powerful runners through the middle of the park, so look out for Madigan taking the ball to the line and using his deft hands to put the big men through the gaps…or having a dart himself.

Key Battle
Nathan Hughes v Jamie Heaslip.  This is one of those battles that is worth the admission price alone.  Although it's sad that we won't get to see the "Battle of the Biceps" between James Haskell and Sean O'Brien (there's an off-season fundraiser for you), this matchup is likely to be more critical than that one ever could be.  The two men are, in many ways, very similar number eights, looking most effective in the slightly wider channels where their power and athleticism allows them to make breaks themselves and offload to devastating effect in the wider channels.  Simply put, both sides will be looking to them as their primary source of both front-foot ball and the trigger for breaking the opposition defence; whoever has the bigger game, wins their side the match.


This is a watershed moment for Wasps.  A new home, and potentially a trip to the knockout stages for the first time in eight years is at stake.  There's a feel good factor about Wasps at the moment and, despite Leinster's pedigree and the big loss of Alapati Leiua, I can see the hosts having the sharper sting in the tail (sorry).  They'll get the win, Leinster will grab a losing bonus point, but it won't be enough to stop Wasps from confirming their re-emergence as a European force in the knockout stages.  Wasps by 5.


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