Wasps overcame Covid-19 hit Dragons to kick off their Heineken Champions Cup campaign with a 24-8 victory at Rodney Parade.
Lee Blackett’s side were desperate for a win after a couple of Gallagher Premiership losses and got it with two tries in both halves.
Our reporter Bobby Bridge was in Wales for the match and here are his observations from the bonus point win…
Across his four Autumn Nations Cup appearances for England, Dan Robson played a total of 68 minutes. At Rodney Parade he clocked up 72 minutes alone and weighed in with a try and two assists.
It was so good to see the scrum-half at his intuitive, free-flowing best. With no shackles on him, he went looking for gaps and chinks in the Dragons armour who must’ve been fed up with his sniping in defence and attack.
There was one moment when he tapped a kickable penalty when Wasps were down to 14 men that didn’t pay off but that was the exception to the rule.
He’s playing the rugby of his life at the moment and is the heartbeat of this Wasps side.
Cruse’s mission – very possible!
The back end of last season must’ve been tough for Wasps hooker Tom Cruse. With Tommy Taylor on form and Gabriel Oghre’s impact from the bench and versatility as a back row option, the experienced campaigner was frozen out of the semi-final and final squads.
One can only imagine how tough that must be for a player who was in the trenches during the not-so-long-ago leaner times at Wasps.
At Rodney Parade, he was given a chance from the start and he grabbed it with both hands. His try took some finishing from outside the 22 and he did so in style for his 15th score in 86 appearances.
The lineout was much improved too, with Wasps losing just two of their 18 throws and they were dominant at scrum time.
Cruse has staked a big claim to be Wasps first-choice hooker once more.
Go West, go hard!
We’re not moving too far away from Mr Cruse for the next player to be in the spotlight, we go West, to loosehead prop Tom.
It may surprise some to learn this was only his tenth senior Wasps start from his 38 appearances so far.
The academy graduate has proven so effective from the bench, he’s made it difficult for Lee Blackett not to select him as a replacement, finisher, impact player – whatever you want to coin it – Tom West has been influential when entering proceedings mid-match – which he has done in 20 of his last 26 Wasps games.
Injuries to Simon McIntyre and Ben Harris cleared the path for his first start of the season, and while we know he has qualities around the park and an eye for a try, it is scrummaging that is top of a prop’s list of priorities.
The Dragons’ resources at tighthead were hit by the Covid-19 outbreak but he came up against Aaron Jarvis, a player ten years his senior and with 18 test caps to his name. West took him to the cleaners in a merciless and dominant performance.
West has set a mighty benchmark to build from moving forward. You feel he’s only going to get better.
Sometimes in sport things just do not click, and you get the feeling when it does, somebody is going to get a hiding.
That’s how it feels with Wasps right now. Their patterns and attacking play look neat but they’re struggling to build pressure in the opposition 22 like they did so successfully in their run to the final last term.
They coughed up possession 23 times across the match which tells its own story and once more, it was snatchy handling errors which were crucial to denting momentum.
Ultimately they found a way to win and were excellent in the final 10 minutes, but for too long this game hung in the balance because scoreboard pressure wasn’t applied and Dragons remained one breakaway try from an unlikely victory.
Better teams will punish Wasps for their current profligacy and high error count.
Jack of all trades
For club and country, Jack Willis has now scored 16 tries in his last 30 games.
The back row had registered three tries in his first 36 Wasps appearances, before scoring 15 in his next 28 club games. Shall I go on? In his last 15 club games, he has only failed to score five times.
While he has an interception try from halfway on his CV (against Gloucester in March), he has become a master poacher from close range. But this try at Rodney Parade was a little different.
The England ace looked up from a maul and spotted winger Jonah Holmes, a man he was confident of beating physically. And so it proved, as he dragged a handful of players over the line with him for a crucial try.
Willis senior wasn’t at his swash-buckling all-action best on Saturday, but he still came up with a massive moment that helped decide this game.
He’s already won a Premiership Player of the Season, he’s got eyes on European honours this term.
Heart of a lion
Charlie Atkinson, a teenager in the Wasps academy, made headlines in September when he was knocked out by Owen Farrell’s high tackle that earned the Saracens fly-half a red card at Allianz Park.
With Jacob Umaga out injured and Lima Sopoaga needed in the backfield, he got his chance from the start after three senior substitute appearances so far.
Wherever Wasps hid Atkinson in the defensive line, Dragons tried to find him with high balls. But this kid appears to have the heart of a lion. The only kick he fumbled was one which arguably wasn’t his to compete for, but he showed willingness to go for it close to the touchline.
His confidence grew despite being on the receiving end of a couple of shuddering hits, which he returned when given the chance in the defensive line, punching well above his weight.
But there was a moment in the 27th minute which had me reaching for the remote as soon as I got home from the game late on Saturday evening to rewatch.
Operating from turnover ball, Atkinson struck a diagonal cross-field kick from his own 10 metre line that landed at the boot of Josh Bassett on the Dragons 22. If the winger had kept that under control to score, it’s a try we’d have been talking about for a long, long time.
He looks like a real talent.
It wasn’t until 30 minutes before kick off did I notice the SIX changes to the Dragons team. Soon the story unravelled that a Covid-19 outbreak had hit the Dragons camp once more.
Post-match, Wasps head coach Lee Blackett pointed out all the right questions were asked and assurances were given, but ultimately the players could decide if they didn’t want to individually participate. Nobody took a backward step.
They passed that acid test, and didn’t let the disruptions knock their focus to slay the Dragons.
But bigger tests will come. Namely the midweek Covid-19 screening tests. Pass those and this is all put to bed, but any spike in positive cases, tough questions might be asked about those chaotic few hours before kick off.
Hopefully it is not a win that comes at a cost for Wasps.