‘That was high, that was reckless’. Two seconds past the hour-mark at Allianz Park, the day’s big sporting story was summarised appropriately on BT Sport’s matchday commentary.
Eight minutes into only his second senior appearance, 18-year-old Charlie Atkinson was face down on the artificial turf after Owen Farrell’s swinging arm clattered into his skull. The first-year Wasps academy starlet, who only left school this summer, was swarmed by concerned teammates. They displayed remarkable restraint to not exact their own revenge upon the grounded culprit nearby. Instead, they wisely awaited Christophe Ridley’s swiftly-brandished red card.
A ban will follow for the British and Irish Lion. He will certainly miss Saracens’ Heineken Champions Cup clash with Leinster and his international hopes this autumn are also under threat. His face, understandably, is likely to be printed in every national newspaper this morning.
It was an incident born out of frustration. A second-string Wasps team with 14 changes from the side that heroically beat Bath earlier this week, had squeezed and stretched Saracens in equal measure during their dress rehearsal for a trip to Dublin in a fortnight’s time.
Wasps had no right to win this game on paper. A leading bookmaker offered odds of 1/50 for a Saracens win before kick off. A figure that was appropriate to some, maybe insulting or even motivating to others.
Because this was a Wasps team without man-of-the-moment Jack Willis or internationals Dan Robson, Thomas Young, Brad Shields, Joe Launchbury, Kieran Brookes nor All Blacks World Cup winner, Malakai Fekitoa. All key components in their surge from tenth into the top four this term.
Their back row on Saturday consisted of Ben Morris, plucked from Championship club Nottingham two seasons ago, and, for nearly an hour, he was joined by current academy player Kieran Curran, following Sione Vailanu’s early injury. The broad-shouldered 20-year-old packed down for his senior debut against a back row that has 460 Saracens appearances collectively.
Then there is Tom Willis. Dogged by injuries after a promising start to his Wasps career, he took the fight to Saracens and was the game’s outstanding number eight, despite starting at blindside flanker. To put his performance into some perspective, Billy Vunipola has started as many Premiership finals as Willis junior has Premiership games, with five.
There was enough identity and experience mixed into this Wasps team to avoid a ‘rookie’ tag. To do so would be incorrect and insulting. Will Rowlands is a Test quality lock, Tom Cruse and Josh Bassett are proven Premiership performers and in Ben Harris and Simon McIntyre, they weren’t lacking for talent at loosehead. Captain-for-the-day Jimmy Gopperth led his side on the occasion of his 100th Wasps appearance.
The 37-year-old spoke movingly after the match about creating memories. Moments of sporting achievement, wins against the odds that stand out from the rest. Wasps have had two in a week, factoring in the adversity-riddled 27-23 win at Bath on Monday when they lost four players to first-half injuries.
Physicality, bravery and commitment are musts to defeat Saracens. Luck plays a part too. The Wolfpack were a shadow of the side that, like Wasps, had won three from four since the Premiership reconvened after its five-month break. While Mark McCall’s men initially rallied after they were reduced to 14, playing the final quarter with a man deficit eventually hampered hopes of a home win.
But defeating the champions also takes adventure. A willingness to break free from the shackles of structure and predictability. Leading 9-6 and in first-half stoppage time, Wasps were presented with a penalty near halfway. Tap it, get it off the park, surely? Not a chance.
Live-wire scrum-half Ben Vellacott, reminiscent of former Wasp Matt Dawson in his prime, sensed an opportunity and backed himself to tap and go. It could’ve backfired. It didn’t. The former Gloucester man, robbed of the first 12 months of his Wasps career due to an unfortunate ACL injury on the eve of the elongated 2019/20 campaign, earned his side a footing in the Saracens half where they promptly conceded a penalty. Gopperth rewarded Vellacott’s daring, his audacity, with three points to double Wasps’ lead at the break. It was no less than what they deserved.
The half-back duo were influential in proceedings, it’s perplexing to fathom this was the first time they’d started a match together in those positions.
Pulling in the same direction
At The Rec, Wasps learned how to win without a fully-functioning lineout with both hookers off injured and their back-up thrower Thomas Young also forced from the field. At Allianz Park, they managed to muddle through without a secure scrum as Saracens got the upper-hand in that department. Wasps’ resolve to not let that pressure turn into points, and their organisation at defending close-range mauls, are the hallmarks of a team pulling in the same direction – no matter who pulls on a matchday shirt or what is thrown at them.
With four rounds remaining, Wasps have secured a return to Champions Cup rugby for 2020/21 and matched their points total for the entirety of the 2018/19 season. Achievements that point to progress being made. However, like their decision on the stroke of half-time at Allianz Park, they shouldn’t settle for just that. Their play-off destiny is in their own hands.
Should Lee Blackett’s side keep the chasing pack of clubs at bay, on the evidence of their past two victories, they are fast becoming the side everybody will want to avoid in a one-off match with prizes at stake.