Richard Cockerill returned on Sunday from a prolonged period of enforced Trappism imposed by those sensitive souls among Twickenham’s disciplinary class who felt his rhetorical flourishes at last season’s Premiership final were just a little too spicy for comfort. Ironically enough, the Leicester coach was struck dumb by the some of the things he saw.
The champions were missing plenty of players – always an issue for them at this time of year, when an outbreak of international rugby tends to coincide with an outbreak of orthopaedic trauma – but even so, the bone-headedness of their performance beggared belief.
Not that the champions’ error count, best described as stratospheric, made Wasps’ victory any less worthy, for while Leicester travelled south with front-line Test players absent from every area of their side, they were still able to field such hardened operators as Marcos Ayerza, Louis Deacon, Julian Salvi and Thomas Waldrom up front. “More than enough to win the game,” muttered Cockerill, who then proceeded to summarise events in inimitable fashion. “Turned up, played shit, went home,” he said, memorably.To be sure, their performance was unusually confused and erratic. Most of all, it was lacking in patience and bereft of direction. Things might have turned out differently for them had they succeeded in re-signing the outside-half Andy Goode from Worcester during the close season, but Goode opted for Wasps and in true Sod’s Law fashion, he played a blinder here.
With the beginnings of the widely-predicted Biblical storm at his back after the interval, he hit the spot with two perfectly struck drop goals and also landed a penalty from the best part of 60 metres. Yet there was something even more impressive about the Londoners’ performance: a sudden rebuilding of the once-renowned ‘black wall’ defensive operation, which, in the glory days of Lawrence Dallagllio and Joe Worsley and Fraser Waters, could neither be scaled nor dismantled. The collapse of the wall was prompted by Dallaglio’s retirement in 2008 and it reduced the club to rubble, but yesterday the bricks were back in place.
Wasps were sufficiently committed and resilient to reach the break 13-9 ahead, despite having spent the first half playing into the teeth of the wind. Goode surprised his old employers on eight minutes by making one of his very occasional open-field breaks – a bold intervention that was maximised by the centre Chris Bell, who opened up Christian Wade’s route to the right corner with the loveliest of floated passes off the left hand. For their part, Leicester had to be content with three penalties from Owen Williams, very much an apprentice playmaker when compared with his opposite number.
Yet there was not a single Wasps supporter who did not know that the second half would be more testing, even though the elements were now in their sides’ favour. Sure enough, life grew very tough indeed as the penalty decisions began to flow Leicester’s way, and when the Londoners lost one of their most experienced hands, the Italian Test hooker Carlo Festuccia, to the sin bin – his offence was nothing to write home about, but there was only so much whistling the referee Andrew Small was prepared to do – the writing was on the wall. To their enormous credit, Wasps flatly refused to crack, buckle or break.
Ashley Johnson, their South African loose forward, tackled himself to a standstill; James Haskell clattered into the visitors at every opportunity; Tom Palmer, still one of the best line-out forwards around when the mood takes him, made a nuisance of himself whenever Leicester attempted to launch something from the touchline.
“They put a lot of pressure on us for a good few minutes after the sin-binning and the way we held out then was the difference between winning and losing,” said David Young, the Wasps rugby director. “And the good thing is, there were youngsters playing in our pack who will have learnt an enormous amount from performing in that environment, against fully-fledged internationals.”
He was thinking primarily of the tight-head prop Jake Cooper-Woolley, the flanker Guy Thompson and the No 8 Ed Jackson, all of whom were forced to ask serious questions of themselves over the course of proceedings and came up with some persuasive answers. It was no mean achievement for relatively new, largely unknown players to mix it with the Ayerzas, Salvis and Jordan Cranes of this world and emerge with reputations enhanced.
Last season, people were saying the same things about the bright young things in the Wasps back division – most notably Wade, the right wing, and Elliot Daly, who plays outside centre and full-back with equal facility but appears to have a brighter future in the latter role. Daly was exceptional yesterday, his kicking game as secure as his broken-field running was dangerous. “Every time he receives the ball,” said Young, “it looks as though something will happen.” It was a fair appraisal.
It is perfectly possible that Daly would have been every bit as impressive against a full-strength Tigers back division boasting such luminaries as Mathew Tait, Manu Tuilagi and Toby Flood. His game appears to have the “points of difference” craved by the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, who, come the end of the season may wonder whether the 22-year-old is not the equal of Mike Brown, Ben Foden or Alex Goode, the current contenders for the red-rose No 15 shirt.
There again, the aforementioned Tait may also push his way into the reckoning, assuming his latest “minor” injury does not turn into a major one – a perennial risk with that most gifted of English outside backs. So many contenders, so little time to assess them ahead of the home World Cup in 2015. Best of luck, Mr Lancaster.
Scorers: Wasps: Try: Wade. Conversion: Goode. Penalties: Goode 3. Drop goals: Goode 2. Leicester: Penalties: Williams 4.
Wasps: E Daly; C Wade, B Jacobs, C Bell (capt), J Bassett (T Lindsay 44-54); A Goode, J Simpson; M Mullan (S McIntrye 65), C Festuccia (Lindsay 60), J Cooper-Woolley (W Taylor 60), T Palmer, K Myall, A Johnson, G Thompson, E Jackson (J Haskell 44).
Leicester: N Morris; B Scullly, T Hepetema, D Bowden, A Thompstone; O Williams, D Mele; M Ayerza, N Briggs, L Mulipola, L Deacon (capt), E Slater, J Gibson (P Matera 63), J Salvi, T Waldrom (J Crane 53).
Referee: A Small (London).