The Wasps v Leicester games of the early/mid 2000s were always pretty special. I remember when they were in the same Heineken Cup group and they played out two high-scoring epics, with senior players like Martin Corry and Lawrence Dallaglio commenting on the ‘international intensity’ of the contests. Yes, Wasps v Leicester always carries an edge – the two best sides of the professional era going head-to-head, there’s always going to be a bit of ‘agro’. And now some bright spark has had the idea of moving Wasps next door to the Tigers so that they’re local rivals as well. Oh good, that should calm things down.
There are a couple of other factors which may help to spice things up, too – such as the fact that whoever wins this is in prime position to secure that fourth playoff spot. And, to be honest, these seem to be sides travelling in opposite directions – Wasps, who fell from great heights to the edge of the abyss, have a new stadium, a vibrant team and are well on the way to becoming one of the richest rugby clubs in the world, apparently. Leicester may have maintained their place at the top but you have the sense that this has been a side that has been in slow decline over the last couple of seasons – that edge, that ruthlessness, is becoming a rarer and rarer sight.
We may well see that edge return when they need it most, but perhaps a year out of the top 4 will force the Tigers to seriously reflect on what issues have been holding the club back from its usual high standards. And I’m sure that Wasps, as their friendly neighbours, will be more than happy to help with that reflection.
Wasps Team News
Wasps are unchanged from the side which won 36-29 at home to Exeter a fortnight ago, but England lock Joe Launchbury is on the bench and likely to return after six months out (neck injury).
Starting Line up: Masi; Wade, Daly, Leiua, Tagicakibau; Goode, Simpson; Mullan, Festuccia, Cittadini, Gaskell, Myall, Johnson, Haskell (capt), Hughes.Replacements: Lindsay, McIntyre, Taylor, Launchbury, Thompson, Davies, Lozowski, Miller.
Ashley Johnson. The blockbusting Nathan Hughes and the resurgent James Haskell have rightly won plenty of plaudits this season, but any Wasps fan will talk your ear off in the praise of Wasps' big South African. Yes, he may look like a rather portly palm tree, but the flanker/number eight has proved his worth time and again - not just with his power, but with his footballing nous, his work over the ball and his ability to get about the field. In many ways, he is similar to Thomas Waldrom, who has been superlative for the Chiefs this year, in that he may not be overly fashionable but he is devastatingly effective. If Leicester make the mistake of putting too much attention on Hughes and Haskell, Johnson will punish them.
Tigers' skipper Ed Slater is included in the squad for the first time in a year after recovering from a serious knee injury, whilst Marcus Ayerza also moves from the treatment room to the bench. England forwards Dan Cole and Geoff Parling are also back in the team. Cole was rested for the 38-17 win over London Welsh, while Seremaia Bai starts alongside Mathew Tait in midfield and Vereniki Goneva returns after suspension. Interestingly, lock Geoff Parling starts at 6 ahead of Jamie Gibson for the East Midlanders.
Starting Line up: Morris; Thompstone, Tait, Bai, Goneva; Burns, Youngs (capt); Mulipola, Youngs, Cole, Thorn, Kitchener, Parling, Salvi, Crane.Replacements: Ghiraldini, Ayerza, Balmain, Slater, Gibson, Harrison, Bell, Loamanu.
Niki Goneva. The Tigers seem to have given up trying to find some sort of a coherent game-plan this season, but that isn't necessarily the players' fault; not having an attack coach doesn't help. With that being the case, they seem to increasingly rely on moments of individual brilliance from the likes of Ben Youngs, Freddie Burns and the wizardry of this man. Goneva hasn't really hit the heights of last season, but then again he hasn't really found the space - but if he gets any room, he is still a man who can make things happen and turn defenders inside out. If Leicester want to pose a threat to Wasps in this game, they need to create space out wide and get it into Goneva's hands as soon as possible.
Joe Simpson v Ben Youngs. It wasn’t so long ago that Joe Simpson was heralded as part of the ‘talented trinity’ of England scrum halves who were destined to contest the England 9 shirt for the best part of the next decade, but for some reason young Simpson fell away after being selected into the England World Cup squad. Injuries, inconsistency and questions over his service and kicking game were usually banded about, but after much hard work those questions are now answered and he is now bang in form and still possesses frightening speed – witness his match-sealing try against Exeter a fortnight ago. He’s up against the current holder of the England shirt, Ben Youngs, who has himself had an impressive season – Youngs is not quite as quick (albeit far from slow) but he is more tactically astute and he has that knack to create and spot gaps from nowhere and, like Simpson, is in decent knick right now. Both men have their snap back and both catalysts for their team’s attacking game – it will be fascinating to see who can have the bigger influence on the match. Simpson will know that this could be his World Cup audition.
We’re effectively back in that pre-playoff playoff position right now – whoever loses here can forget their chances of making the semi-finals in all likelihood. Traditionally when the chips are down you see the best of the Tigers, but they’ve been so tame throughout most of the season that I struggle to see them overcoming a Wasps side that is on an upward trajectory and high on confidence. Leicester should aim for set piece dominance and, if they obtain it, they may have a way into the game, but the Wasps eight are not the pushovers they once were and, with the benefit of a coherent gameplan (as opposed to Leicester), the hosts should emerge as winners this afternoon. Wasps by 8.