After finishing third last season, missing out on an Aviva Premiership Final place following a 34-23 loss to Exeter Chiefs, Wasps have started the 2016/7 season with aplomb. It is fair to say that Wasps are definitely back.
Between 2000 and 2010 only two teams managed to lift the Premiership trophy – Leicester Tigers and London Wasps (as they were called then). The two teams were dominant throughout the ‘noughties’, with the Tigers picking up six titles to their opponents four.
The quality both teams had during this era can be typified by a quick glance at the teamsheets from the 2004/5 final, packed with multiple English World Cup winners in the likes of Lawrence Dallagio, Matt Dawson and Simon Shaw on the Wasps side and Ben Kay, Neil Back and Martin Johnson lining up for Tigers. The 39-14 victory for Wasps was to be their penultimate Premiership title, the final one coming in Lawrence Dallagio’s final appearance in the 2007/8.
Since then, whilst the Tigers have maintained a decent standing in the league, winning the following two championships and reaching the final in the next two, Wasps have been on a slippery downward slope.
Their league positions in the seven seasons leading up to last year were as follows: 7th, 5th, 9th, 11th, 8th, 7th, 6th. For a team so used to challenging for the title at the end of the year, these results were not good enough.
These performances can be put down to uncertainty both on and off the pitch.
Having lost the influential Dallagio, Sir Ian McGeechan left following a poor 2008/9 season to be replaced by Tony Hanks. This was compounded by a mass-exodus of big players, with James Haskell, Tom Palmer, Rikki Flutey, Eion Reddan and Danny Cipriani all leaving the club.
When Hanks left in 2011, shortly followed by Head Coach Sean Edwards, Wasps appeared in disarray. Dai Young was brought in as the new Director of Rugby, however this proceeded Wasps’ worst season since the creation of the Premiership. Struggling with injuries, Wasps only just avoided relegation, ending the season in 11th place.
Young set about rebuilding the club, bringing in the likes of Andrea Masi and Stephen Jones, as well as luring James Haskell and Tom Palmer back.
The struggles on the pitch were compounded by those off it. Wasps had been playing at their temporary home of Adams Park in Wycombe since 2001, following a move from Loftus Road, however they have long harboured ambitions to own their own home.
While they made no secret of their desire to find a suitable ground, the options facing them were extremely limited with nowhere that matched the ambitions of the club available. In 2007, then owner Steve Hayes put together plans to rebuild the stadium, creating a 17,000 capacity stadium that was multi-functional for both Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers FC. When these plans fell through, Hayes left and the club was back too square one.
In 2013, Derek Richardson came in as the principal shareholder and things were looking up for Wasps once more. In 2014 they dropped the ‘London’ part of their name and relocated to Coventry, taking a 50% stake in the Ricoh Arena.
This move seemed to not only revitalise Wasps off the pitch, but on it too. Whilst the 2014/5 season saw them finish sixth, there were glimpses of excellence in the way they played and the future was starting to look bright again.
Last season, the real signs that Wasps were back started to show. Dai Young made the inspired decision to bring in George Smith for the season, something which sparked massive improvements in not only both James Haskell and Nathan Hughes, but also younger back row players coming through such as Sam Jones, Guy Thompson and Thomas Young. The Piutau brothers also came into the backline, alongside Jimmy Gopperth, adding a new degree of fluency and dynamism. They finished in a deserved 3rd place, as well as reaching the Champions Cup semi-final.
Sitting Pretty At The Top
The 2016/7 season has seen the dream start for Wasps having played five, won five – including victories against potential title contenders Exeter, Northampton and their old foes Leicester – to sit top of the league. Dai Young made some exquisite transfers over the summer, bringing in top quality players such as Danny Cipriani, Kyle Eastmond and Kurtley Beale – with Willie La Roux due to join in January – and Wasps now look like a force to be reckoned with once more. The proof can be seen in their dismantling of Harlequins at the Ricoh last Sunday. The home side played with a quick tempo, showing deft hands to move the ball quickly and displayed some pure attacking quality as they ran in seven tries to their opponents two.
Of course, the big test will come this Sunday when they face reigning champions Saracens at Allianz Park. Wasps will take heart from their 64-23 victory in the corresponding fixture last year, but this will be an early season test of how good this team really are.