Wasps, led by 37 year old Lee Blackett, have stormed into the Gallagher Premiership final. His team will come up against serial finalists Exeter Chiefs and new European champions, of course led by Rob Baxter. This has therefore created the first final since 2013 with two Englishmen in charge of the two teams.
These two join a now seven-strong group of English coaches in the Premiership, three of whom led their teams to the play-offs.
Lee Blackett leads Wasps to Premiership final
Appointed in February, Lee Blackett’s first win was a 60-10 thumping of Saracens. Perhaps this should’ve been the warning sign for the rest of the league. Since then, they have only lost once and in true Wasps tradition, timed their charge up the table perfectly.
🏉 Wasps have appointed interim boss Lee Blackett as their new head coach on a permanent basis following the departure of director of rugby Dai Young in February
👉 https://t.co/53jY4ZA9fw pic.twitter.com/KwFgWNh7fS
— BBC ScrumV (@BBCScrumV) April 9, 2020
How much of this is down to the ‘new boss’ effect? Initially, it seemed that Wasps had the shackles released. They racked up three consecutive bonus-point victories before the season pause. But five months later, when the season restarted, they continued in the same manner.
Speaking to The Rugby Pod, Lee Blackett said that his approach was based on improving their strengths, rather than addressing weaknesses that had appeared earlier in the season. He identified the breakdown and broken field as the two key areas. And it has certainly worked. Jack Willis, the league’s turnover king with 44, has dominated the breakdown and won multiple man-of-the-match awards. Meanwhile, 12 try bonus points in 22 rounds highlight their attacking threat.
Play-offs for Bath in Stuart Hooper’s first season
For all the final round drama, it was slightly lost that Stuart Hooper led Bath to the play-offs in his first season as Director of Rugby. After several years of mediocrity under Todd Blackadder, Hooper took over early and has delivered their first play-off appearance in five years. Arguably, it could have been more if a few other results had gone differently.
Hooper certainly benefited from the disrupted season, with Bath having their full compliment of international stars available for the run-in. The addition of Ben Spencer at scrum-half also gave them an extra dimension. But also, Bath’s improvement has come from their forward pack creating a platform; no doubt stemming from the leadership of a former forward.
The chasing pack
The delay to the season meant the season restarted with two more young English coaches in charge. Steve Borthwick left the England set-up to join Leicester Tigers, whilst fellow former second row George Skivington now heads a relatively young coaching team at Gloucester. On paper, it may look like neither has had much success so far.
Borthwick arrived and immediately had to deal with the fallout from the players’ salary cuts, losing Manu Tuilagi amongst others. It is a second consecutive 11th placed finish for the Tigers, but there were certainly a number of matches where they fielded inexperienced teams, with numerous young debutants. It certainly looks like they were spared relegation thanks to Saracens, but of course its difficult to say that for certain.
At Gloucester, another coach under 40 is in place. George Skivington recorded four wins out of nine matches, albeit this includes a forfeit win against Northampton. This matched the amount of wins achieved under Johan Ackermann in rounds 1-13. However, there has been clear improvement in the Gloucester forwards machine, an area that had been letting them down previously, particularly in the lineout.
The new era of English coaches
These two former second rows, alongside Paul Gustard and of course Rob Baxter, make up the seven English coaches currently in the Premiership. We have previously seen Nick Kennedy, yet another second row, struggle after stepping up from the Championship.
Baxter will now be looking to add a second Premiership title to a maiden European title for Exeter. At 49, he can still be considered a relatively young coach and is now the leading English coach in the league. But the next few years we could see considerable competition for that title.
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