The final round of the 2016/17 Aviva Premiership brought us a number of high-scoring games (the match with the least points was Northampton’s 22-20 win against Harlequins) and plenty of excitement. While the bottom of the table was decided a few weeks back, home advantage in the playoffs was a possibility for the top 3 teams, and the final playoff spot and the all-important final Champions Cup Qualifying spot were also up for grabs. With all games kicking off at the same time (supposedly) and matches on 2 BT Sport channels, I made the decision to spend my afternoon watching the top of the table clash between Wasps and Saracens.
After a delayed kick-off, a packed Ricoh Arena saw Wasps break Newcastle’s record of 86 Premiership tries from the 1997/98 season on their way to a 35-15 victory that left them top of the table and set up a home semi-final against local rivals Leicester Tigers.
I was functioning on very little sleep (the fact that I’m still recovering from a 7s tournament the weekend before proves to me that I’m now an old man) so my thoughts may be a little more jumbled than usual, but I still managed to get a few coherent points from the game:
No empty seats
All 6 Premiership games were due to kick off at 4pm, but due to safety concerns, this game was delayed by 15 minutes to allow all the fans to get to their seats. While I agree with the commentators’ sentiments that the way the game panned out required Wasps to score that 4thtry (thus giving them the bonus point needed to top the league) in order to stop the momentum Sarries were building, in different circumstances this delay could have given these 2 teams an advantage over the teams who kicked off on time.
I appreciate that this was the largest attendance of the season (32,000) but they have topped 20,000 spectators for other big Premiership games this year so I would have expected organisers to be more prepared. It was also great to see a larger stadium filled up for a change rather than empty seats. I appreciate Wasps are still relatively new to the area but it’s never nice to see a stadium struggling to fill even half the seats, as was the case for many of their home games this season. Hopefully the increased length of time in Coventry will be helping them build a bigger fan base, and their exciting play will draw the fans into the ground for the games.
So many options
Not only do Wasps have a back line full of quality players, they are also full of versatility. In their starting back line this weekend they had Jimmy Gopperth (fly half/centre), Willie le Roux (Wing/Fullback) Elliot Daly (centre/wing/fullback) and Kurtley Beale, who I’m pretty certain has played every position in the backs other than scrum half during his career! This versatility gives the Wasps attack so many options, as seen when le Roux popped up at first receiver to set up Thomas Young’s second try. The amount of players capable of kicking accurately also helps take the pressure off Danny Cipriani, so allows him to play his natural game. This also makes it so difficult for a team to defend effectively, as it is all but impossible to guess how they will attack on the next phase.
If the Welsh national team coaches were unsure who to pick for the back row in the absence of their 4 Lions, then Thomas Young’s performance has surely filled the 7 shirt. His hat-trick in a Man of the Match performance was just the tip of the iceberg and showed that he is dangerous in the loose as well as an effective 7. If his performances for Wales are as good as for Wasps, then the Welsh selectors will be spoiled for choice when selecting their back row come the Autumn Internationals.
Newcastle’s try record wasn’t the only one up for grabs in Coventry on Saturday. Christian Wade equalled Dominic Chapman’s record of 17 tries in a season with the simplest of finishes. I understand that in the past he has been seen as not good enough defensively, but he looks to have improved in that area, so I am shocked to have seen him excluded from Eddie Jones’ England squad this summer. I remember being impressed by Nathan Earle when I saw him feature for England U20s a few years ago and I have heard a lot of good things about London Irish’s Joe Cokanasiga, however neither of these lads have been regularly starting for a top Premiership club like Wade has. If Wade can continue this form next season, surely Eddie Jones will have to look in his direction soon.
With Wasps facing Leicester at home and Sarries travelling to Exeter in the semi-finals, there is a good chance that this year’s Premiership final will be a repeat of this fixture (though I am personally hoping for a Wasps v Exeter final). However if this is the case, the Saracens XV will likely be very different to the one seen at the Ricoh. With a Champions Cup final on Saturday, a number of top players were either on the bench or rested altogether.
In my opinion, Ben Spencer was one of the only replacements whose performance may have earned them a promotion to the starting lineup, though I would still be very surprised to see Richard Wigglesworth dropped for such a vital game. I was very disappointed by the lack of imagination in the Saracens attack, with Spencer’s snipe through the gap left by an injured Tommy Taylor the only real moment of note that I remember from them. That opening try is the only time that I remember Saracens looking dangerous before they conceded the third try. If these teams do meet in the final, expect a very different match with all the usual stars back in action.
What did you think of the game? Have I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge