From the moment they fumbled the opening kick-off, Wasps were on the back-foot against Harlequins at Twickenham, in the annual Christmas ‘Big Game 11’.
As Wasps Rugby were defeated by Harlequins 20-13 in front of a capacity crowd for Big Game 11 at Twickenham, fans witnessed a disjointed performance that will worry head coach Dai Young.
That early knock-on, and subsequent offside handed Harlequins an early penalty, which Marcus Smith stroked to the corner. It was a signal of intent from ‘Quins at their adopted home. They reaped the rewards of their boldness – a clever move at the front of the lineout sending Alex Dombrandt over.
The well-attended derby game from two proud London sides had all the hallmarks of a game to celebrate the season. Although, with the Christmas spirit substituted for a Gallagher Premiership fixture, the idea of giving was replaced by a focus on attacking play-completion.
— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) December 29, 2018
It could have got worse early on for the guests. Dombrandt seemed to be over for a second after swatting aside Lima Sogoaga. However, an air-time jostle in the lead-up to the try was adjudged to have gone forward off of Mike Brown’s hands. Nevertheless, Dombrant (seen as a coming force for England) highlighted his credentials with a strong all-round performance to round off his season.
Wasps were not even on the scoreboard at this stage, with Sopoaga missing particularly poorly from right in front. That allowed Harlequins to take an early 10-0 lead. Paul Gustard’s side managed to maintain that lead throughout.
Hosts suffer yellow card, yet still manage to Attack
The visitors had to survive ten minutes down to 14 men, due a moment of stupidity from Dave Ward; stepping on a prone leg at a ruck. The Harlequins hooker was in fact ‘fortunate’ that neither referee nor TMO spotted a potential spit in the direction of Thomas Young. Visible or not, it was not the act of sportsmanship that the large crowd appreciated.
The traveling Wasps fans had few highlights in that window, and cause for concern when 13-3 behind on the Twickenham scoreboard. True, Will Stuart might have breached the Harlequins defence, but his action was against the grain – Wasps ineffectual for most of the fixture.
Danny Care and Marcus Smith fizzed throughout, and it was the former’s deft kick through that allowed Joe Marchant to cross for the game-winning try in the second half. And the Twickenham faithful erupted in appreciation, as a monstrous scrum on their own five-metre line, to all but secured Harlequins the win.
Quality way to end the year. Massive shout out to everyone involved at @Harlequins for putting on another unbelievable event. Nobody does it better. Crowd were amazing too! Happy New Year everyone! X pic.twitter.com/xJqo5jk5ZG
— Danny Care (@dannycare) December 29, 2018
The ‘hiccups’ and stuttered performance from Dai Young’s men was error-prone. Not least, but the game threatened to boil over – and did after the final whistle – due to Wasps players exasperation at their own mistakes.
By that stage it was immaterial, Harlequins had the 20-13 win, and Wasps fans trudged off; claiming a losing bonus point, but not enthused by the sides actions.
Error-prone Wasps struggle in Big Game 11
Wasps struggled with continuity throughout the 80 minutes of the Big Game 11, with a high error count and missed opportunities aplenty. Tellingly, they turned the ball over nine times in the first 43 minutes; Harlequins just once.
Thrice in the first half hour did Nizaam Carr – normally a pillar of solidity at number eight – did knock on the ball in contact. Errors, self-inflicted or not, will cost the side dearly until the coaching staff can improve the teams micro-skills.
With a slew of strike runners across the team, Wasps were able to penetrate the Harlequins defence and win collisions, but too often the support was slow to arrive, allowing the likes of Jack Clifford, Dombrandt and the otherwise excellent Ward to pounce.
Breaks were made early and often, but the final pass always seemed to evade waiting hands, or find that the hands were not there.
Midfield Worries add to Wasps current plight
None of the current midfield trio of Lima Sopoaga, Michael Le Bourgeouis and Michele Campagnaro were at the club last year, with Campagnaro a particularly recent arrival from Exeter. They all failed to gel during the game, often stitching different patterns, resulting in forward passes, fumbles and stagnated attacks.
Campaganaro’s plight in the South West was a baffling one, given how effervescent his rugby for Italy has been in recent years. This game perhaps offered insight into why he struggles in foreign leagues and is yet to create any combination for Wasps rugby.
(Still, it appears some Wasps rugby fans are prepared to give the midfield a break)
@WaspsRugby down in 7th with that back line 😲 Robson, sopoaga, le bourgeois, campagnaro, daly, basset and le roux should be putting plenty of points on the board! Impressed with @LimaSopoaga in his first season at the club! Hoping for a better 2019! Come on lads! #newfan
— Alex Hill (@Alexhilly1492) December 29, 2018
Rob Baxter never trusted the outside centre as anything more than a bit part player in Exeter’s relatively rigid structure. Campagnaro seems to thrive when allowed to play as a maverick with freedom; as is necessary in Italy’s possession starved game. Within a system, Campagnaro seems to struggle.
Of more concern, Lima Sopoaga has failed to hit the ground running in the Premiership. The New Zealander still seems to be adjusting to the Northern Hemisphere game-type. The frustration was plain. Both Elliot Daly and Willie Le Roux threw the ball down in disgust after play broke down by their side – the former was pinged by referee Craig Maxwell-Keys for cynical play.
One thing @WaspsRugby must learn from today is to stop the petulant throwing away/down of the ball when a decision goes against us. @elliotdaly cost us the 2nd try because of it today. It doesn’t matter if the ref is wrong, accept it and win the ball back next play. #Values
— Neil Morley (@doogwasps) December 29, 2018
le Roux must learn to play within the structure if he is to be an effective tool for Wasps.
Note: Danny Cipriani and Jimmy Gopperth were steadying hands despite their ball-playing capabilities. Without the pair there to stitch things together against Harlequins, Wasps look an easier prospect to handle. Midfield worries need to be remedied…and fixed quickly too, if the side are to remain a threat in 2019.
Wasps Rugby leadership being tested
Brad Shields captained his new side in the Big Game 11. Though he has plenty of experience in this regard – from the Wellington Lions, to the Hurricanes Super Rugby side – he has not been at Wasps long, and they lacked a steadying hand on this occasion.
The absence Joe Launchbury was a huge miss, and with rumours growing stronger of further key departures ahead of next season, it could be that Wasps’ position in the very top echelon of English club rugby may be at an end.
The time for leadership, as much as structure and the ability to make others fear their attack, are on the ‘New Years wishlist’ for Wasps rugby fans. Falling by 20-13 means they are one or two tries away from winning. So if the defence can limit opposition ball, then fans might have more to cheer for, as January quickly approaches.
Next Gallagher Premiership fixtures:
Newcastle Falcons v Harlequins – Saturday January 5, Kingston Park
Wasps Rugby v Northampton Saints – Sunday Jan 6, Ricoh Arena
“Main photo credit”
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