Discussions to decide the Gallagher Premiership player of the season will be held next week and Jack Willis is likely to be contender for the honour. Here, rugby writer Bobby Bridge explained why the Wasps flanker deserves the accolade…
Standing by the side of the pitch with an icepack wrapped around his elbow and a man-of-the-match medal now removed from his neck and modestly stowed away out of sight, Jack Willis grew increasingly impatient.
Having mulled over Wasps’ sensational 47-24 semi-final victory over Bristol Bears to television crews and three separate radio journalists, a scrum of masked written media were finishing talking to head coach Lee Blackett.
“I can only be a couple more minutes,” Willis muttered quietly to a member of the club’s PR team, every inch of him wanted to be back in the changing room with his teammates. Not that it showed when he finally did begin answering questions with his customary smile and good grace.
Off he jogged five minutes later with his duties complete to rejoin his buddies and savour the moment, albeit a little belatedly. Lest we forget, the 24-year-old has now tasted both agony and ecstasy in a Premiership last-four game.
125 weeks previously, his first semi-final ended prematurely with major damage to both his ankle and knee during Wasps’ 57-33 defeat at the hands of Saracens in the 2017/18 Premiership semi-final at Allianz Park. His hopes of Premiership glory in tatters, and earning a first England cap in the 2018 summer tour of South Africa agonisingly plucked from his grasp through a cruel twist of fate.
His 2018/19 season was largely spent in the treatment room, rehabilitating from his major injuries that limited him to just one start and two substitute appearances that term.
Lions captaincy label
Since rugby restarted in mid-August, the fanfare surrounding Willis has grown with each sensational outing. Former Wasps fly-half Andy Goode labelled him a future British and Irish Lions captain while another ex-Wasp, James Haskell, called him ‘unreal’. Austin Healey, on commentary for BT Sport, nailed it by saying Willis is his choice for player of the season because he does big things at big moments.
This was evidenced against Bristol Bears. Seven minutes before half-time, the flanker was in his own half as Wasps defended what was then just an 11-point lead at the stage. Thomas Young snared the ball from the base of a ruck and upon the first recycle, who was there in support? Jack Willis. He rampaged forward a further 15 metres before being hauled down close to the line.
His ball presentation ensured it was swiftly moved away from the breakdown. Bristol had no time to reset. On his second drive for the score he reached his target to move his side 18 points ahead.
Shortly after half-time with no further scores added, he held up Callum Sheedy over the line to stop a certain try. Bristol would score a few minutes later but in a game so finely poised, that extra time was precious and kept the momentum within Wasps’ possession.
One night in France
His phenomenal abilities at the breakdown to turnover ball and win penalties, especially since referees were given new directives of interpreting the laws in this area, coupled with eight tries in his last 12 Premiership games, has quite rightly made him the ‘poster boy’ of Wasps’ recent successes.
But it’s important to remember, he has been weighing in with massive contributions long before the wins started arriving quicker than government press conferences.
When this playing group, which has remained largely unchanged during the course of the season, was at rock bottom in terms of results and morale, Willis still gave reasons for optimism.
The last time he shared a pitch with Semi Radradra prior to Saturday’s semi-final, was in November 2019. Wasps suffered a 40-30 defeat to Bordeaux Bègles during a European Challenge Cup pool stage game. That night he made 17 tackles, scored a try and won five turnovers. To put that into perspective, there was only nine turnovers won by both teams across the 80 minutes.
It was display I was privileged to witness in person and label an ‘openside masterclass’. Even the notoriously partisan French media declared the Englishman as their man of the match.
That defeat was Wasps’ fourth in their first five front-line games. They would win only two of their next seven as their European adventure ended at the first hurdle and they remained locked in the bottom third of the Premiership.
Yet still their wrecking ball back row was weighing in with increasingly devastating contributions.
In Dai Young’s last game in charge, the 30-26 win at Sixways in January, Wasps were desperately defending their own five metre line at the death when Willis – who had scored a try 15 minutes previously to put his side ahead – used every bit of his 6ft 3in frame to lean over a ruck to make an attempt for the ball that was rewarded with a penalty and ended the home side’s hopes of a thrilling late winner.
Jack has not rode on the crest of a wave to thrust his name forward for England honours or even a possible Premiership player of the year accolade.
His inspirational performances, an unrelenting desire to improve day-to-day, to overcome adversity and better himself, have been the main driver in turning this team from one with promise but beset by savaged confidence levels, to becoming the thrilling juggernaut of entertainment and success that has taken them all the way to Twickenham.