Two rounds into the Heineken Champions Cup, Wasps have a perfect 10 points to their name and are on course for the knock-out stages.
Their 33-14 win over Montpellier on Friday night backed up their 24-8 win at the Dragons in round one.
Our reporter Bobby Bridge was one of the few people inside the Ricoh Arena and these are his thoughts on the victory…
The kids are more than just alright!
Alfie Barbeary was in phenomenal form but he wasn’t the only youngster making a big impact on proceedings.
Wasps’ eight, nine and ten were all recent academy graduates or in Charlie Atkinson’s case, still not yet a senior player.
Scrum-half Will Porter was making his first Heineken Champions Cup start while Atkinson and Barbeary made just their second start in the competition having featured in Dragons victory last weekend.
That’s a huge amount of trust to place in a 19, 20 and 22-year-old. But that’s exactly what Wasps head coach Lee Blackett did. With a wealth of senior players out injured and four internationals rested, the trio were hugely influential and rewarded their boss’ faith.
Porter bravely squared up to Louis Picamoles and also had Henry Immelman’s shoulder slammed into his head for the game’s early red card. He seemed to thrive in the adversity of being in the thick of the action after a torrid time of it injury wise. It’s a battle royale now to be Wasps go-to man when Dan Robson is not available to man the nine shirt with Sam Wolstenhome and Ben Vellacott also in the reckoning.
Finisher, impact player, super sub – Tom West has a problem
Tom West, another academy graduate who made his Heineken Champions Cup debut against the Dragons, has a problem.
His early arrival from the bench in the second half was his 17th substitute appearance in 20 outings under Blackett. Not for the first time, the unassuming 24-year-old was a hugely influential replacement.
Some consider it a dirty word, but the term ‘finisher’ was created to reflect the significance of the subs in modern rugby. West didn’t arrive to hit softening, tired shoulders, he was the antidote to experienced Georgian international Levan Chilachava trotting on for the visitors.
With Simon McIntyre and Ben Harris the preferred starting options, West has become the go-to weapon from the bench. It’s a winning formula and one you cannot see changing anytime soon.
It’s a role he appears to be relishing, it just may come at the cost of him starting too many matches in the near future.
Gritty Wasps’ key period
Wasps were ahead by 12 when Barbeary was sent to the sin bin for a ruck offence as Montpellier swarmed following Gabriel Ngandebe’s scintillating linebreak.
They kicked to the corner and went searching for a try while temporarily no longer at a man disadvantage. Score at this juncture, they would be within a score with the game’s most influential player having a rest.
Lineout, penalty conceded, lineout, penalty conceded. Thomas Young gets a captain’s warning from referee Andrew Brace.
Montpellier change their point of attack and opt for a scrum, earning another penalty. On rushes Gabriel Oghre, and along with West and fellow sub Jeff Toomaga-Allen, they drove the visitors into submission, earning a penalty of their own. Six minutes were taken out of the yellow card and the body language of the visitors was telling. That was their last shot.
Not so long ago, Wasps were accused of having a soft under belly. For having all the flair, creativity and pace to entertain, but not the grit to grind out results and win trophies. Even without the dogs of war like Joe Launchbury, Jack Willis, Brad Shields and Will Rowlands, they rose to the challenge and defended valiantly. It was a key quality in their run to Twickenham last season, and it was crucial to not letting Montpellier back into this encounter.
Barbeary’s revealing moment
Okay, let’s discuss Alfie Barbeary. When a player scores two tries, provides the assist for another and shanks a kick with his left foot that ultimately led to another try, it’s hard not to.
His tries were physical, abrasive, poachers efforts. The type Jack Willis has been scoring frequently during 2020. But there’s so much more to the young man’s game. This was highlighted by his deft offload for Paolo Odogwu’s try. There’s a hunger in defence too.
There was one aspect of his performance that pleased me more than all the others. Returning from his sin-binning, Wasps had a scrum five metres out. Tom Willis, a specialist number eight, arrived from the bench and took his place at the back of the scrum.
Ask yourself, would the 20-year-old version of you have given up the opportunity to pick from the base and rampage over for a hat-trick? It was rugby’s equivalent of scoring twice then being awarded a penalty, but your designated penalty taker takes the ball before striding towards the spot.
Tom Willis did pick and go, and who was in support to stop Montpellier from turning the ball over? You guessed it, Alfie B. Seconds later, Vellacott whips out a pass and Atkinson scores his first Wasps try.
We know Barbeary has immense power and an eye for the line. That he has rugby intelligence and stamina. What this showcased was his maturity to be a team player and not go chasing individual glory, even though the game was won.
Five quickfire points…
– Tom Cruse’s sublime assist followed up his lovely try against the Dragons. Left out of the Premiership semi-final and final last term, he’s put the hurt into proving a point. Lineout accuracy, a vocal leader with a sprinkling of X-factor.
– Something isn’t quite right with Jimmy Gopperth from the tee. It has been mentioned in this analysis column before but he is measured against his own very high standards and his two first-half misses you expect to see him land 9 times out of 10. Fortunately Benoit Paillaugue’s wayward kicks before the interval meant they weren’t too damaging to the Wasps cause.
– How good was it to see James Gaskell stride over to score? He’s been through a lot in recent years, with injury issues leaving him questioning his future in the game. During those long absences he’d have dreamt about moments like that.
– Immelman’s red card caused some debate online. Even from my distant vantage point in the stands at the Ricoh Arena, I immediately said ‘he’s off’. There’s no debate here, just because Porter is small, it doesn’t mean he deserves a shoulder in the head. Given all we’ve read and heard on concussions in recent weeks, the onus is on tacklers to drop their height. TV commentator David Flatman made a good point about Courtney Lawes being a giant, but doesn’t pick up cards for tackle height issues. Immelman had to go.
– ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ pumped out into the empty stadium upon the final whistle. Anybody who has been to a ‘Christmas Cracker’ here knows what a special occasion this can be with the last game before Christmas day here attracting an average attendance in the high 20,000s. Two days after Coventry was kept in tier 3 Covid measures, Wasps played their ninth home game behind closed doors.
It really hit home as Slade’s Christmas classic played. This Wasps group deserves supporters enjoying their performances in person. It wasn’t a perfect display, yet it was one that gives supporters heart and a spring in their steps on the build-up to Santa coming down the chimney – or does he leave presents on your doorstep in 2020 with a knock on the door before shuffling off to his sleigh?
Hopefully Wasps’ eighth win in those nine home games before a sea of empty sky blue seats did at least bring some festive cheer for those following the game from home.