Lee Calvert previews the biggest teams ahead of the Aviva Premiership season. This week: Wasps.
Wasps, formerly London Wasps before their much-publicised and sometimes maligned move to Coventry in 2014, were the surprise package of the Aviva Premiership last year. They played with head-turning snazz and pizazz all season before falling just short against Exeter Chiefs in the semifinal.
They also put in an outstandingly flamboyant showing in Europe, where they thumped both Toulon and Leinster at home, edged Exeter in an absolutely cracking quarterfinal, then inevitably lost to the great hope destroyer that is Saracens in the semis.
All in all, Wasps were responsible for a great deal of what was good about northern hemisphere club rugby in 2015-16. Can they be as good – or even better – this season?
They will have to do so without standout outside back Charles Piutau, who has been allowed to move on to Ulster in a move as mind-boggling as many of his runs and offloads were last year. But while head coach Dai Young may look like the most miserable man on the planet after Steve Hansen, he clearly has some charm as his particular brand of glum flirting has pulled some absolute crackers into the Wasps dressing room – most notably behind the scrum.
Danny Cipriani will bring his particular brand of active play to 10 this season in the hope that Eddie Jones finally takes notice. Kyle Eastmond, another nippy and dexterous talent, heads over from Bath. Kurtley Beale arrives injured but with much expectation, while Willie Le Roux adds his fading superstar status to fullback. These are strong additions an already electric backline which, even without the injured Beale, could line up on opening day like this: Joe Simpson, Danny Cipriani; Kyle Eastmond, Elliott Daly; Frank Halai, Christian Wade, Willie Le Roux. Not bad at all.
The pack has taken some hits, however. The ageless George Smith has taken an opportunity (to earn loads of money) in Japan, Wales lock Bradley Davies has taken his grunt back home and two Italian front row players have also departed. England’s James Haskell, Joe Launchbury and Nathan Hughes aside, the pack looks heavy on promise but perhaps a little light in experience for the season to come.
The biggest test for Wasps this season may well be managing expectation. The club were able to go out and do their thing last year with the abandon that comes with not many expecting a great deal of them. That ‘let’s give it a go, no one really expects to beat Toulon!’ attitude will not be available to them this year. Moreover, their opponents won’t be fooled twice. The question is: are this group of players and Dai Young savvy enough to deal with the difficult second season?
Last Season: 3rd, lost in playoffs semifinal
Prediction: Same again
Head Coach: Dai Young
Ins: Marty Moore (from Leinster), Tommy Taylor (from Sale Sharks), Danny Cipriani (from Sale Sharks), Tom Cruse (from London Irish), Guy Armitage (from London Welsh), Craig Hampson (from Bristol), Tom Woolstencroft (from Bath), Marcus Garratt (from Cornish Pirates), Kurtley Beale (from NSW Waratahs), Matt Symons (from London Irish), Nick de Luca (from Biarritz), Kyle Eastmond (from Bath), Willie le Roux (from Sharks).
Outs: Charles Piutau (to Ulster), Alex Lozowski (to Saracens), George Smith (to Suntory Sungoliath/Queensland Reds), Jamie Stevenson (to London Scottish), Ed Shervington (retired), Ruaridh Jackson (to Harlequins), Bradley Davies (to Ospreys), James Downey (retired), Ben Jacobs (retired), Carlo Festuccia (to Zebre), Andrea Masi (retired), Lorenzo Cittadini (to Bayonne).
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