Wasps Topple Saracens: The Play-Off Picture Assessed

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2017 Aviva Rugby Wasps v Saracens May 6th
May 6th 2017, Ricoh Arena, Coventry, Warwickshire, England; Aviva Premiership rugby, Wasps versus Saracens; Kurtley Beale celebrates the Christian Wade try for Wasps (Photo by Phil Hutchinson/Action Plus via Getty Images)

Wasps finished top of the Premiership for the first time in 20 years after a 35-15 win over Saracens at a sell-out Ricoh Arena on Saturday.

That result means Leicester Tigers will make the short trip to Coventry for a mouth-watering clash of the two sides who dominated this competition for so many years. Saracens will also be on the road, in a rerun of last year’s final when they take on in form Exeter at Sandy Park.

On Saturday, a hat-trick from Thomas Young and a try each for Elliot Daly and Christian Wade (who equaled the single season try count) eventually saw Dai Young’s men pull clear. They defeated an under strength but stubborn Saracens side who were in the match for large periods.

The Message: What was McCall Saying?

Bizarre call from Mark McCall wasn’t it? To leave Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth, Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Maro Itoje and both Vunipola’s out of the starting XV for a trip to the league leaders. One that; had they won, it would’ve earned them a home semi-final. Bizarre call?

Well not necessarily, in fact it wreaked of confidence – maybe some slight arrogance – but McCall, whilst battling certain political issues regarding how often England Six Nations players can take the field, sent out a message to their fellow play-off contenders…even in defeat. 

‘I’d rather have my top players fully rested for an away trip, then risk having them slightly jaded for a match at their Allianz Park home’ is how many interpreted his selection calls.

Who can blame him really. His Saracens side visited Sandy Park in the early rounds of the season and – despite missing the injured Farrell – came away with a bonus point win. Obviously, that Exeter side is a far cry from the one who set a new Premiership record in 2016/17. Their ninth straight bonus point win, after success at Gloucester. 

Saracens also had success away in their recent European Champions Cup semi-final to play Munster in Dublin. And, despite being in the most hostile of environments that day, cantered through that test – so away trips hold no fear for the Barnet-based outfit.

Can Wasps end the Wait?

It’s been almost nine years since Wasps lifted the Premiership trophy, and they will be determined to ensure that wait doesn’t reach double figures. Ultimately, they’ve put themselves in the best possible position to do so, with a home match against the Tigers (who are not the side of years gone by).

Wasps haven’t tasted defeat at the Ricoh for over 18 months and that will inevitably give them confidence. They beat Leicester in both fixtures this season; although the game in Coventry highlighted exactly what could prove to be Wasps undoing in the post season. 16 points up at half-time, the Tigers fought back and created a contest that should never have been allowed to exist.

Game management is Wasps Achilles heel at the moment, and they will need to be far more street wise if they want to reach the final at Twickenham – let alone win it.

Despite their superstar line-up, this is a young Wasps team; not in age, but in psychological development. Dai Young’s side is full of players who have enjoyed success elsewhere, whether that be at club level or internationally. But new groups breed new challenges and Wasps must prove they have the aptitude.

Name the Favourite

Saracens, Saracens and Saracens. The delight which they have brought many fans, is incalculable. Some [this reporter included] will bet their whole life savings on the reigning champions, they are well supported.

Exeter and Rob Baxter will feel; perhaps rightly so, that they should be a more prominent part of the potential winners’ conversation that from an early stage was whittled down to just Sarries and Wasps. Many saw the London side as possibly being a ‘sure thing’.

Should they topple the defending champions in Devon, it would be a surprise but, not a shock. Few – including this reporter – would begrudge them the Premiership crown, but you feel they have a little way to go. In four matches against Wasps and Saracens, Exeter have failed to win, drawing two and losing two, which could manifest itself psychologically.

Entering Knockout Rugby Stage, Who Sits Best?

Knockout rugby is about talent and skill, but equally as important is ‘how you manage the entire experience’. Right now, that separates Saracens from everyone in Europe – let alone Premiership Rugby.

Saracens don’t panic in pressure situations: they are the most efficient of teams in attack, when they get half a chance they often score. Being under the cosh doesn’t phase Saracens players, and why would it with the defense they possess.

Contrary to what the final Premiership table suggests, for me the English power rankings go as follows: Saracens, Wasps, Exeter. All would be worthy champions, but the first port of call for each Director of Rugby will be to ‘get to the final’ before thinking about winning it.

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The Aviva Premiership finals series begins on Saturday May 20:

Exeter v Saracens, Sandy Park | Wasps v Leicester, The Ricoh

 

“Main photo credit”

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