Coming into the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership season, Wasps were expected to be a playoff side contending for the title, whilst Bristol Bears were tipped to be in a relegation battle and up against the odds to retain their status as a Premiership club.
Fast-forward just over six months and there are only five points separating the two teams, with Bristol set to host Wasps on Friday evening and Pat Lam’s side capable of erasing that deficit come the final whistle.
Wasps number eight Nathan Hughes made the headlines earlier this season when it was confirmed he would leave the Coventry-based club, who have been in the playoffs for the last three seasons, for the side from the south-west, who are eager to re-establish themselves as a Premiership force.
With the two teams set to meet at Ashton Gate on Friday evening and the supposed high-fliers falling well below expectations, as well as the promoted side punching above their weight, we have put together a composite XV between the two clubs.
Are Wasps still the better side on paper or have Bristol usurped them, in their bid to become a force in English rugby once again?
- Charles Piutau, Bristol Bears
One that even the most ardent Wasps fan will struggle to disagree with, having seen Piutau grace the pitch of the Ricoh Arena to extremely favourable effect in the 2015/16 season. The Kiwi has seen injury disrupt his first season at Bristol but his talents are undeniable and, when fit, he is one of the top players in the competition.
- Josh Bassett, Wasps
An underrated player, Bassett regularly delivers for Wasps, despite being starved of the platform that he has enjoyed in recent seasons at the club. Former Wasp Alapati Leiua has also gone well for Bristol this season, but Bassett just sneaks ahead of the Samoan.
- Elliot Daly, Wasps
A veritable Swiss Army Knife of a player, Daly is most often used at 13 for Wasps, although he would make this XV at outside centre or on either wing. The club will miss that versatility, as well as his obvious ability as a counter-attacker, creator and kicking option, when he moves to Saracens next season.
- Siale Piutau, Bristol Bears
Without being in electrifying form, Piutau has provided consistency for Bristol and an ability to run hard and straighten the line, often creating space for those around him. Michael Le Bourgeois and Juan de Jongh have had their moments for Wasps in rotation, but Piutau has been one of the more unheralded reasons for Bristol’s success so far this season.
- Luke Morahan, Bristol Bears
From the unheralded to the heralded, Morahan’s clinical finishing out wide has been getting its due recognition for Bristol this campaign. From the opener against Bath, where he tormented Bristol’s age-old rivals, Morahan has been the sharp edge of the knife that is the club’s back line.
- Ian Madigan, Bristol Bears
A tough choice, with Lima Sopoaga having achieved a lot with both the Highlanders and the All Blacks, but his transition to the Premiership has not been as seamless as Madigan’s. In fairness, Madigan had a season in the Greene King IPA Championship to acclimatise before arriving in the Premiership, but it’s a battle he’s edging at the moment, nevertheless. There is more to come from Sopoaga.
- Dan Robson, Wasps
Finally capped by England on the weekend, Robson’s tempo and play around the fringes has been the heartbeat of the club over the last couple of seasons. Some have argued that his form has dipped this season, but that looks to be a symptom of Wasps’ struggles in general, with the scrum-half’s play looking as alert and sharp as ever.
- Yann Thomas, Bristol Bears
Thomas’ work at the set-piece and in the loose has been excellent this season and the Bristol-native might be enjoying the best campaign of his career to date, after a rotational role in his eight-year stint at Gloucester. He seems to suit Lam’s mobile, high-tempo style well.
- Harry Thacker, Bristol Bears
Talking of Lam’s playing philosophy, Thacker is another front rower that suits it down to the ground. His six tries this season have him tied for the fourth most in the Premiership and his ball-carrying ability has kept Bristol on the front-foot this season, as well as a threat to score from anywhere on the pitch.
- Jake Cooper-Woolley, Wasps
The Sale Sharks-bound tighthead is going to be another big loss for Wasps to have to deal with next season. He has been unlucky not to win an England cap over the last few years and that largely comes down to Dan Cole’s durability and Kyle Sinckler’s impressive development.
- Chris Vui, Bristol Bears
Getting the Samoa captain to extend his deal with the club until 2022 has been one of the best bits of business Lam and Bristol have done this season. His versatility to play both second row and blindside has been valuable, bringing plenty of carrying and lineout ability to the squad, as well as a good mix of line-speed and tackling efficiency.
- Joe Launchbury, Wasps
Losing Launchbury to injury early in the season has not helped Wasps, but with the international second row now fit again, albeit away with England, they will be confident of pushing back up the table in the second half of the season.
- Steven Luatua, Bristol Bears
Arguably the pick of Bristol’s performers so far this campaign, Luatua has brought the leadership, power in the carry and an ability to keep phases alive that he was renowned for at the Blues and meshed it with good decision-making as to when and when not to play his hand.
- Thomas Young, Wasps
Young has been one of the bright spots for Wasps in a disappointing six months, with the Welshman proving to be as predatory as ever at the contact area, whilst also providing a threat with ball in hand. He made a deserved Six Nations debut against Italy at the weekend.
- Nathan Hughes, Wasps
One which Bristol fans won’t mind conceding, with the powerful number eight heading south in the summer. His ability to break the gain-line, win the contact and free his arms at the Premiership level is exceptional and one that Wasps will miss and Bristol will enjoy in equal measure next season.
Watch: Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell talk to the press after England’s win over France
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