Stuart Lancaster must be loving the European Champions Cup this weekend, because his task of naming a 30something-man England squad for the Six Nations has just become even tougher. Don’t even think about a starting XV to take on Wales in Cardiff on 6 February with a final round of rugby to come next week. Forget A5 notebooks, Lancaster needs something of Bayeux Tapestry proportions. Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw may be England’s captain, but Wasps captain – and fellow flanker – James Haskell gave another performance for the ages. Was it enough to edge out his Quins counterpart? Absolutely. Will it happen in Cardiff? That depends on whether or not Lancaster has the minerals to drop his captain. Probably not, but more options are emerging at every position, and that’s before you entertain the Steffon Armitage and Sam Burgess situations. Scrum-half is another area that needs serious consideration. Quins nine Danny Care is by no means a shoo-in and his decision-making will again be questioned after he gifted the ball to Wasps speedster Christian Wade for the game’s opening try. His counterpart Joe Simpson, who scored the only other try of the game with a superb dummy and snipe from 25 metres, must surely be in with a shout for a recall to the squad as one of the Aviva Premiership’s in-form scrum-halves, scoring four tries in his last five matches in all competitions. That’s without factoring in Saracens’ Richard Wigglesworth, who was outstanding earlier in the day at Allianz Park, while Leicester’s Ben Youngs should again be in the mix. Prolific Wasps wingmen Christian Wade and Tom Varndell deserve a look again after their impressive form, but both could find themselves in the cold. Whoever Lancaster selects, there are sure to be a lot of disappointed in-form Englishmen during the Six Nations.
“The scoreboard never lies,” they say. Quins director of rugby Conor O’Shea will disagree in the strongest terms. The scoreboard at the Stoop suggests Wasps had a comfortable victory in Twickenham, but the reality was they had to defend for their lives to achieve it. The stats are there to prove it. No question, it was a majestic defensive effort, mercilessly led by skipper Haskell, who put in an an abacus-busting 25 of their 182 tackles. By contrast, Quins’ top tackler was number eight Nick Easter, who made eight of 76. There were a number of Wasps forwards who achieved double-figure shifts, including number eight Nathan Hughes (16) and Wales lock Bradley Davies (14), with most of them coming in their own half as Quins failed to get anything from their 70-30 territorial advantage. Possession, carries, metres made. Robshaw, Mike Brown, Jack Clifford, Marland Yarde all carried well and made plenty of ground and achieved nothing. The stats show clearly that the home side dominated the game as they lay siege to the Wasps tryline, yet all they got for their effort was a solitary Ben Botica penalty goal five minutes after the restart, and only after a penalty afforded Andy Goode the chance to establish a 20-0 lead. Duly taken. To compound their problems, Quins had to watch Wasps centre Elliot Daly rocket a 56-metre penalty through the posts with 13 minutes of the second half gone, then saw the Coventry club withstand everything thrown at them. Nineteen turnovers from Quins in the match didn’t really help either. When it’s not your day, it all goes against you. At least there’s a trip to France to look forward to next week. Castres shipped eight tries at Leinster earlier in the day.
It’s worth remembering that Wasps were the lowest ranked English club to reach the pool stages, needing a play-off against Stade Francais last summer to be among the elite 20 clubs in Europe. Since then, the former “London” club have rebranded, bought a stadium complex, moved their home matches from High Wycombe to Coventry, handed their director of rugby and a raft of players new long-term deals, and endured a lot of attacks in the process. Despite all that, they’ve come out the other end in impressive fashion. Now, they have a real chance of reaching the European Champions Cup quarter-finals in a winner-takes-all match at the Ricoh Arena against Leinster. On paper, they’re a talented side. The same can be said on the pitch and they love proving doubters wrong. Some ardent fans may even be dreaming that the Dai Young era could equal the Warren Gatland era. That would mean plenty of silverware. They’re some way off that just now, but that shouldn’t mean it’s not a possibility. The early signs are promising that success could come if their upward trajectory continues, but there is a good case to be made that the Premiership is becoming increasingly competitive and with a glut of players from the southern hemisphere already signed up to extend their stay in England after the Rugby World Cup, heavy recruitment is happening at every club and competition will be fiercer than ever. Until then, there’s a heavyweight European clash to look forward to. If Wasps can produce the same performance against Leinster, who knows what this season could bring.
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