Wasps and Harlequins came into this game at the Coventry Building Society Arena after differing results last weekend; Wasps had claimed a convincing away victory at Bath, whilst Harlequins had been defeated at home by Saracens. With this being the final weekend before a two-week break for domestic cup matches, both sides wanted to end this block of fixtures on a high. Wasps have had mixed fortunes so far this season, winning three and losing three before this weekend, whilst defending champions Harlequins had made a good start, securing four wins from six up to this point. This tactical analysis will focus on the tactics that Wasps deployed in the first half, as well as Harlequins’ mistakes and improvements after the break.
Wasps made four changes to the team which defeated Bath last weekend. Experienced utility back Jimmy Gopperth and England international Dan Robson both joined the lengthy injury list during the trip to the Rec, whilst full-back Marcus Watson moved to the bench, alongside flanker Thomas Young, who was released from the Wales squad in the week. Summer signings Ali Crossdale and Nizaam Carr came off the bench to start at full-back and flanker respectively, whilst Gopperth’s enforced absence meant that on-loan Munster player Alex McHenry partnered Michael Le Bourgeois in the midfield, and academy graduate Will Porter filled in for Robson at scrum-half.
Harlequins, meanwhile, made three changes of their own after the Saracens defeat. Winger Louis Lynagh and Italy fly-half Tommaso Allan had both sustained injuries of their own, and were ruled out of this game as a result. That meant that former England Sevens player Will Edwards was handed a start at fly-half and Nick David made his debut for the club on the wing, following the latter’s summer switch from Worcester Warriors. The other alteration saw lock Hugh Tizard move to the bench, with Matt Symons returning to the matchday squad and partnering Dino Lamb in the second row.
Wasps’ tactical approach
Wasps had clearly thought before the game about which tactics would work best against Harlequins, with their first half performance displaying plenty of organisation and teamwork as a result, and Harlequins found it difficult to compete with them.
One noticeable feature of Wasps’ game was that they didn’t look to run with the ball too often in the early stages, and instead opted to kick it up the field and keep the pressure on the Harlequins backs. Whilst Will Porter was kicking long plenty of times from ruck situations, Marcus Watson, who was an early injury replacement for Ali Crossdale, has on this occasion sent up a shorter ball, looking to get underneath it and challenge for it further up the pitch. This pressure led to Harlequins’ South African centre Andre Esterhuizen dropping the ball whilst gathering it, which allowed Nizaam Carr to pick it up and try to run forwards, and this almost led to Porter scoring a try.
When we consider that this attack stemmed from Watson’s kick, it becomes more evident that the number of balls sent into the air by the home side was a key part of their in-game tactics.
When they did decide to keep the ball, Wasps put together some good phases of passing, moving it around at speed and constantly looking for ways to break through the gaps in the Harlequins line. Here, number 8 Tom Willis is running between hooker Jack Walker and his opposite number Tom Lawday, but doesn’t manage to find a way between them. However, his clever offload to tighthead prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen began a series of passes which led to hooker Gabriel Oghre almost reaching the try line.
This was not an isolated situation, either, as a separate attack later in the half almost led to winger Josh Bassett crossing the line. Wasps’ awareness and positioning in these moments gave them an added level of creativity, which was important in helping them to play around Harlequins and control the game.
It wasn’t only in attack where Wasps were strong. Defensively, the home side worked together to end every Harlequins attack, with this image showing one example of how they did this. Visiting centre Luke Northmore, who was really impressive all game, is making an attempt to break through the Wasps line here, but has been met by former Bath lock Elliott Stooke and winger Zach Kibirige. Both Wasps players know their roles here, with Kibirige going high and Stooke low, and both work together to ensure that Northmore can’t escape the tackle. Whenever Harlequins passed the ball out and tried again, two or three more defenders would tackle them, so this was obviously something that they had been working on in training, looking to make it difficult for their opponents to establish themselves in the match.
Harlequins’ slow start
Wasps played well in the first half, but they were helped by some really poor Harlequins play, as the defending champions made plenty of unforced errors which cost them in key moments.
From the early stages, Harlequins were trying to get up to the Wasps players and force them into making an error in possession. However, they were defending too narrowly, leaving the wings wide open for Wasps to exploit, and a long pass on this occasion from Michael Le Bourgeois finds Ali Crossdale, who, along with Kibirige, has run down the wing to offer the passing option and stretch the Wasps attack out.
This was intelligent play by Wasps, but it was not the only time that they found space on the wing and got the ball beyond the defensive line, and that came down to Harlequins not leaving a player to defend that area of the pitch. Wasps weren’t making errors as they had hoped, with the home side having no problem passing the ball out of danger at speed, and Kibirige almost got to the try line on this occasion. Therefore, it was a mistake by Harlequins to allow them so much space to play in, and they needed to rethink this at the break.
The visitors also lacked speed when moving the ball around, which came down to their accuracy in possession. Former England scrum-half Danny Care has passed out to Dino Lamb here, but the ball was just in front of the Harlequins lock, meaning that he had to stoop to collect it. This prevented him from running onto it, which would have enabled him to collide with the Wasps defence at speed and potentially gain some ground for his team, or to pass to Northmore outside him. Instead, because he had to stop in order to gather Care’s pass, Wasps were able to get up and close him down instead, as the three black arrows show.
On a similar point, this image shows another time when Harlequins’ passing let them down. This time, Esterhuizen is looking to release Northmore on the nearside wing, where the latter would have had a clear channel to run into. However, the South African’s pass went forwards, giving Wasps back possession in a very cheap manner and allowing them to create another attacking opportunity from inside the visitors’ half. It was small details like this that ensured Harlequins couldn’t get a foothold in the first half, and these moments of poor accuracy were what they needed to tidy up in the second half.
Harlequins’ second half improvements
The fact that Wasps didn’t score a single point in the second 40 minutes was partly down to their poor play at times, but also the result of Harlequins being much better on the field, as they looked more like their old selves again.
The most notable improvement was their increased creativity in possession, as they tried to be more unpredictable in attack. In the first half, they had resorted to simply running into the Wasps defence, as we saw them do previously, and this had only resulted in them being tackled and giving away penalties. However, they had a different approach in the second half, with Will Edwards shaping to pass here, but actually holding onto the ball and looking to break through between Carr and Willis. This demonstrated how Harlequins were thinking more about how to force gaps to open in the Wasps line.
The pressure on Wasps that came from the visitors’ improvements was reflected in their penalty count, with Carr penalised here for not releasing Edwards once the fly-half had been tackled. Therefore, these small tweaks were key in Harlequins turning the tables and controlling proceedings in the second half.
Wasps continued to defend with a level of organisation, but Harlequins showed more energy after the break, and had more overall cohesion in their play. Here, substitute Wasps prop Elliott Millar-Mills has been pulled to the ground by the combined effort of Lamb, flanker Jack Kenningham and replacement tighthead Wilco Louw, which has left the gap open between Willis and Wasps’ other substitute prop, Zak Nearchou. As Harlequins were playing with a better awareness at this stage, Scott Steele, who had replaced Care in the second half, was able to make the quick break through this space and score his try. Again, this showed Harlequins’ ability to dictate play and take their opportunities in the second half; two things they had struggled to do beforehand.
Harlequins were much better defensively too, getting up to the ball and preventing Wasps from moving it around with as much freedom as they had had in the first half. On this occasion, substitute scrum-half Francois Hougaard, who joined Wasps from Worcester over the summer, has passed out to Willis, but Lawday has got up well to tackle him and hold on. This resulted in Willis’ offload being slow, with Harlequins winning the ball back a couple of phases later through replacement loosehead Simon Kerrod.
Therefore, the improvements to their play gave them more opportunities to break forwards, and Wasps had no way of getting back into the game once they had lost the momentum. This made the comeback and eventual win for Harlequins inevitable, especially as Wasps’ injury problems were clearly catching up with them at this stage, as Zak Nearchou limped off and joined Crossdale and starting loosehead Robin Hislop on the matchday injury list, only adding to head coach Lee Blackett’s problems.
Whilst it is fair to say that the constant penalty concessions cost Wasps, it is also true to say that they simply weren’t allowed to move the ball around as quickly as they had been beforehand. This was again due to Harlequins defending better and looking more like Premiership champions. There are four Wasps players on the outside of Le Bourgeois here, but, whilst he would have been able to pass out to them in the first half, he was tackled early and well by Northmore on this occasion. This slowed the play down again, allowing Harlequins to reset and get ready for the next attack, which ended with Alex McHenry spilling the ball forwards.
Therefore, we do need to give credit to the away side, because they read the game better in the second half, and that meant that Wasps’ first half tactics didn’t work in the second half.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the English Premiership match between Wasps and Harlequins at the Coventry Building Society Arena. We know that Harlequins are one of the best teams at making comebacks from losing positions, and so they can never be counted out of games, even when having a first half to forget. Wasps, meanwhile, will know that this was one that got away from them, but their growing injury list is a major reason for their indifferent form this season, so we can expect them to show a little more fight once they have some of their key players back in the team.
The Premiership Rugby Cup begins next weekend, with the league on a two-week break. Wasps begin their campaign against Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park, whilst Harlequins are also on the road, when they travel to the StoneX Stadium hoping to avenge the defeat to next week’s hosts, Saracens.