Ian Costello didn’t expect his weekend without a Wasps match to be like this, an unscheduled round of squad coronavirus testing resulting in the assistant coach jumping into the car for the hour-long commute south from Nottingham to Coventry. 

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Needs must, though. Last Wednesday’s confirmed outbreak has cast doubts over the club’s ability to be sufficiently healthy to take part in next weekend’s Gallagher Premiership final. 

Bristol, the team they impressively smashed by 23 points in last weekend’s semi-final, are on standby to take on Exeter at Twickenham if the spread that affected four players and three staff isn’t contained.

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Jack Willis on Wasps’ 2019/20 Premiership resurgence

The Irishman, though, is very much working on the premise that Wasps will definitely be buzzing and will be London-bound for a final no-one could have imagined they would be involved in when long-serving director Dai Young stepped away in early February. 

They have come an awful long way in the eight months since, winning a dozen of 14 games and gambolling into a first final since 2017 with a delicious swagger. So easy on the eye have they been, it would be a crying shame if they were now denied the opportunity of a deserved big day out for all their progress.

It’s crazy that it happens now after us being squeaky clean for so long, but it’s just another thing you have to deal with,” said Costello to RugbyPass the day after the emergence of failed tests forced Wasps to shut the training ground and prep for Exeter in a very different way.

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“It [the positive tests] is guys peripheral to the squad at the moment, but the environment couldn’t be better set-up to avoid spread. Let’s hope it works out. We’ll find out when we get tested again over the weekend and on Tuesday. Please God, we’ll get lucky.

“It’s far from ideal, but if we were to sum up in one word what this (pandemic) period has been about it’s been about adapting, so the last 48 hours we said, ‘This is just one more thing we have to adapt to’. It potentially does put a spanner in the works but we’re carrying on remotely as much as we possibly can.

“The one thing over lockdown was you learnt different skills on how to do things differently, so I would say this isn’t affecting the mood. We’ve been really positive and it’s just another little challenge we have to overcome. We have worked very hard to get this opportunity and we want to do everything to make sure we get a crack at the final.

“Ideally we would have had a two-week prep going into it. We have pretty much wiped out a week with circumstances outside our control, but we have just got to adapt and make sure we are in the best place mentally to take Exeter on.”

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Costello is wired with a positive mindset for that Wasps challenge. It’s his style. Going to Championship club Nottingham to run the whole shooting match as head coach in 2016 might have been viewed from the outside as a step down the ranks after he was assistant at trophy-chasing Munster. 

But Lady Bay was a land of fabulous opportunity, the chance for Costello to think on his feet and improvise with limited resources in an innovative way. It was a shakedown that had him steeled for the ebb and flow of a pandemic year that has now unveiled its latest twist, those pesky failed virus tests. 

“I love a challenge, I love being stimulated in different ways and under different types of pressure. Going from Munster to Nottingham was a massive change, resources, facilities etc, but what I loved was the underlying principle of trying to get the most out of what you have. In my personal life as well I always try to look at what you have, not what you don’t have.

“You have got to be more innovative, more creative, really maximise what you have… it [the pandemic] is a horrible situation and I know how many people have struggled over the last couple of months, but trying to put positives on it, I have loved how different it is, loved how there has been so much change at the club, how we have had to do things differently, how we have had to be innovative, how we have had to be creative and find new ways. 

“As a coach – or in any profession – you want to find the best way of doing things. Nottingham would have been a two-year period where it really enhanced those skills and the last couple of months has been so unusual and such a unique situation, it put you in good stead for situations like that [the pandemic].”

The catalyst for Wasps taking flight in 2020 was a meeting at the Ricoh the day after Leicester beat them in a dour February game the weekend after Young decided to leave. They had lost seven in ten and looked set for lower table quagmire, but Lee Blackett, their promoted assistant, laid out the rejuvenating blueprint. 

“There’s no doubt a lot of ingredients were in place already in terms of the players. We genuinely felt our performances were coming. The Leicester game was tough emotionally because that news broke earlier in the week. The team was selected, we were ready to go and then that happened.

“We’d a meeting the day after the Leicester game and addressed a few things. We revisited our identity, that was the big one. Who we are, what the team wanted to be and how we go about achieving it. It was one of those meetings you look back and go that was a key moment. 

“Lee deserves a huge amount of credit for creating an environment that has allowed people to thrive, allowed people to be themselves, to be very invested and very valued. A couple of other changes were also pivotal.”

Namely, a significant rethink in the strength and conditioning department now headed by Pete Atkinson, who arrived from Italy. “All the conditioning was done relative to how we play games so they explored exactly how we attack, how we defend and all conditioning sessions were completely integrated into terminology that we use. 

“So if it’s defence it was all about speed off the ground, all about our spark, our first five steps after kick chase. It was all terminology around line speed and essentially we became far better conditioned to play exactly the type of game we wanted,” explained defence coach Costello, who is one cog in the talented wheel of Wasps assistants impressing under Blackett. 

“Before we would have been under pressure defending mauls, which is a huge part of Premiership rugby. Bristol scored from a maul last week but they had five attempts within five metres of our line and they converted one, so that’s not a bad return.

“They are a lot of key ingredients and the lockdown period allowed us to identify a narrow focus on a couple of parts of our game. One was around defence in relation to contact work so a solution was to do a separate stand-alone contact session which is both sides of the ball but it made massive differences to our tackle completion, our dominant tackles, our quality of breakdown.”

The impression Costello had of Wasps from the outside before joining in 2018 was that they always knew how to attack. He mentioned how they physically dominated Munster way back in that famous 2004 European semi-final and how they were inclined to win games 50-45, six tries to five and the like over the years, but he wanted to tidy up their defence.  

“When I came in my vision was to create the same excitement on both sides of the ball. I said day one I watch you boys attack and just love it, it’s your DNA but I want our DNA to be around intensity, that excitement, energy and desperation right across the pitch to get the ball back as quickly as we possibly can. That fits nicely into the DNA of the team because we’re so excited to transition into attack.”  

This collective reset has taken Wasps back to giddy heights, a re-emergence sprinkled liberally with individual stardust. “Jack Willis is a standout performer who has got more turnovers than some teams have got. When you have got someone who can do that it allows you to defend in a certain way but across the board, people have been maxing out. 

“Our back row in particular last weekend as a combo is just a back row I’d hate to play against. Thomas (Young) was running around just chopping people, creating access. Brad Shields just can’t get into enough battles in a game, his workrate is through the roof.

“Jacob Umaga has put himself into contention for England, Jimmy Gopperth is the perfect foil outside him, spreads the load a little bit. And then Malakai (Fekitoa) has been the tip of the spear outside him, leading the way in the physicality stakes. If he misses the final (with injury) he will be a big loss.”

All the while the old Wasps boss hasn’t been forgotten, according to Costello.  “Dai recruited the squad and I’m sure he is taking a huge amount of pride in how well we’re going and would massively share in the success if we were fortunate enough to lift the trophy. 

“It reminds me of a little story in my early days. I was involved with a football team in Tipperary. I reckon about five years after I stopped working with them, and I had only been with them for a couple of seasons, they sent me a message to say you were part of them winning their first-ever county final. 

“It always stuck with me that whether you work in the academy, S&C or if you have coached at a club it’s all part of that legacy and Dai has been a big part of that. He gave me the opportunity at Wasps and he’d be regularly in contact with people, especially in the last while, dropping messages and wishing them best of luck. You know that it is very, very genuine.”

Winning, though, is what this business end of the season is all about. Nothing else. Having seen Mike Prendergast, an old pal from his multi-sports playing days in Limerick, fall agonisingly short at the final European hurdle as Racing attack/backs coach on Saturday, Costello is acutely aware of the threat double-chasing Exeter pose to the Wasps title ambitions. 

“There are an excellent side with solid ingredients, an excellent culture as well, really well-coached and a side I have a huge amount of respect for. There are some teams you look at and you say they are good but. You look at Exeter and you say there aren’t too many buts. They have so many threats.

“We’re under no illusions. We know it’s going to take what we have done and then some more, we are going to have to raise the bar another little bit. But we’re not going there just to make up numbers. Genuinely, we’re not the easiest side to play against.”

Here’s hoping they get the virus all-clear to demonstrate exactly that next weekend.  

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