The English Premiership is now on another two-week European break, but the final round of domestic fixtures did not disappoint. One game that caught the eye was unbeaten leaders Leicester Tigers’ trip to the Coventry Building Society Arena, where they would face a tricky Midlands derby against an unpredictable and inconsistent Wasps side. As it turned out, the game did not have a vast number of tries in it, with each side only managing to score one each, but there were still some good tactics that we can pick out from their performances. We will focus first on Wasps’ slow start and improved second half showing, before then finding the reasons why Leicester’s unbeaten run of 11 games came to an end.
Wasps made four planned changes to the starting XV that lost at Sale Sharks in their previous match, with centre Michael Le Bourgeois and flanker Nizaam Carr both dropping out of the squad, whilst hooker Dan Frost and tighthead prop Biyi Alo both moved to the bench. The experienced Jimmy Gopperth moved from fly-half to inside centre to cover Le Bourgeois’ absence, whilst Tom Willis came in at number 8, allowing Alfie Barbeary to switch to flanker as a replacement for Carr. Two further changes were required closer to the day, as loosehead prop Tom West and versatile forward Vaea Fifita both pulled out, so Robin Hislop and Tim Cardall were promoted from the bench, as were Tom Cruse and Jeff Toomaga-Allen, who joined Hislop in an entirely new front row. The other new face in the XV was Charlie Atkinson, who started at fly-half.
Leicester Tigers, meanwhile, continued with the majority of players who had helped to secure a clean sheet against Newcastle Falcons on the previous weekend, making just two changes to their starting XV. England scrum-half Ben Youngs moved to the bench and back rower George Martin missed out, so Jack van Poortvliet and Ollie Chessum came in as direct replacements. Ellis Genge once again captained the side from the front row, whilst Harry Wells kept his place in the back row, despite normally playing as a lock.
Wasps’ early problems
Wasps went into this game attempting to do what no other team in Europe has managed to accomplish this season; beat Leicester Tigers. However, Lee Blackett’s side are unpredictable at the best of times and often struggle to keep their opponents out, and an indifferent first half in this match made that target slightly harder to achieve.
There were positives and negatives in most early situations for them, with this image a prime example of that mixed showing. Scrum-half Sam Wolstenholme has taken the ball from the back of a caterpillar and gone to the air with a box kick, which he has cleverly aimed towards the near sideline. This makes it harder for Leicester winger Harry Potter to collect the ball and attack with any momentum, as his positioning means he can be driven out of play easily, as happened here. Wasps needed to soak up a lot of Tigers pressure in the first half, and kicks like this were their way of relieving that. They also tried to play counter-attacking rugby when possible, with their early penalty try coming from a good break that started from a kick up the field, so this shows that they had a good idea of how they wanted to play.
However, as mentioned, there were also negatives for Wasps in these situations, and the downside here was that, whilst Potter was forced into touch after catching the ball, he was taken out in the air, meaning that Leicester had the penalty and Wasps had not gained any ground. Therefore, whilst the basic tactical ideas were good, the execution needed more work, and that is something that held Wasps back in the first 40 minutes.
Their kicking didn’t always have that same level of accuracy though, which takes us back to the point made at the start of this analysis; Wasps are unpredictable. This image shows Charlie Atkinson attempting to clear the ball from his 22, but, as the black arrow illustrates, he doesn’t make a good connection and sends it across the pitch, giving the Tigers an opportunity to launch another attack from a good attacking position.
Other errors by Wasps included former Bath lock Elliott Stooke making a deliberate knock-on, again giving Leicester the ball in very cheap circumstances, and it was things like these that kept adding up and preventing Wasps from asking too many questions of their opponents, aside from the early try. After a promising start, this type of performance was much more like the Wasps we have come to know in recent memory.
Not all of Wasps’ first half issues were their fault though, as this image shows the build-up to Leicester’s try, which gave them the lead. This was what the Tigers had been looking for, and, at this stage, needed, as they had been controlling large sections of the game, but hadn’t been able to turn that into points.
Two good carries from Scotland centre Matt Scott and Jack van Poortvliet helped to drive Wasps backwards here, but the second carry from the scrum-half was the one that did the most damage, with van Poortvliet initially shaping to pass, but instead running through a gap in the defensive line, catching the home side out and forcing them to adjust their body positions. Although they did manage to tackle van Poortvliet, Argentina hooker Julian Montoya was on hand to score under the posts from the next move. This was clever play from Leicester, but it was something that Wasps had been trying to prevent, as it meant that Leicester had the momentum going into half-time.
However, a big positive for Wasps in the first half was the way that they stopped Leicester Tigers from attacking down the wing, and this was something that they had seemingly been working on in training, knowing where the Tigers carry a lot of threat.
Normally, we see defenders either get sucked inside and leave the wings open in these situations, or move forward and try to close the ball down, neither of which is generally that effective against quick attackers. However, Wasps found a third way to defend in these situations by moving across and forcing the winger to run inside them.
This image is a perfect example of how this worked, and why it was key in keeping Leicester at bay in the first half. Tigers centre Dan Kelly has passed long to winger Guy Porter, but the latter is now unable to run forwards, as Wasps wide player Josh Bassett has cut off his route to the try line. Therefore, he has to cut inside, which loses him time and means he runs into traffic, allowing the home side to end the attack. This is only a small point to mention, but it was a key aspect of Wasps’ performance which proved crucial as the game progressed.
In the second half, Wasps looked like a different team, with their defensive play noticeably improved. Before half-time, as we have already analysed, they struggled to contain Leicester and deal with their attacking pressure.
However, here we see Leicester again attacking down the wing, with Argentina centre Matias Moroni this time the one in the channel. Instead of waiting for the Tigers back to gather his grubber kick in the open space, Wasps’ full-back Ali Crossdale has instead come to meet the ball before Moroni can reach it, and the key thing to mention here is the anticipation shown by the former Saracens back. His ability to move around the pitch and cover different areas was hugely important in the second half, and a key aspect of Wasps’ defensive solidity, as it meant that there were rarely any gaps left open for the away side to exploit. This was another reason that Leicester ended up losing this derby and their unbeaten record, and it will give encouragement to the other teams in the Premiership of how to beat the league leaders.
We saw in the last section of this analysis that Leicester scored their try when Wasps struggled to hold their big forwards back, but this image indicates how their second half improvements prevented this happening again. Alfie Barbeary has been one of the best Wasps players in recent seasons, and he was at the heart of this particular effort which proved decisive in ending the Tigers’ hopes of extending their winning run. Ben Youngs has taken the ball into the tackle here, but Barbeary’s speed at getting over it meant that the scrum-half didn’t release it on the ground in time, giving Wasps the penalty and a just reward for their energy and hard work.
If we are looking for a simple reason for Wasps winning this game, then it is that, whilst they weren’t perfect, they gave their all in the second half, and never caved in under the immense pressure that Leicester put on them in the closing stages. That teamwork and desire will always make a team more difficult to beat.
Why Leicester Tigers lost
However, whilst we have noted a few different reasons for Wasps’ eventual victory, we also need to look at why Leicester Tigers lost it, and it was a below-par performance from them which meant that they didn’t show the pace and precision which we have come to expect from them.
As we highlighted at the beginning, Wasps’ defence has been their biggest issue over the last few campaigns, and their indecision here enabled Harry Potter to run around former Worcester Warriors player Francois Hougaard, who has been turned into a winger this season, having been a scrum-half at Sixways Stadium. Once Potter had got behind the South African, he set up van Poortvliet to score what was a really well-worked try, and it would have counted if England full-back Freddie Steward hadn’t obstructed Wasps centre Sam Spink from making a tackle on Potter.
We have mentioned a lot in this article that Leicester weren’t able to convert their first half attacking dominance into points, and it is moments like this that they will look back on in frustration.
One player who did look below his usual standard was George Ford, who is the creative player at the heart of the Tigers’ attacks. However, he missed a couple of penalties and wasn’t as sharp with his overall kicking as usual, with this image a good example of the impact that this had on Leicester’s performance. Here, he has kicked towards the near side of the pitch, trying to set up a teammate to run into the space behind the Wasps defence, but it doesn’t sit up for long enough and ends up veering towards the sideline, meaning that the opportunity had not been taken.
It does seem harsh to pick Ford out for criticism, but this is the high standard that we have come to expect from him this season, and it was obvious that him not having his best game meant that Leicester didn’t play with their usual fluidity and flair.
As mentioned, Wasps displayed more energy and urgency after the half-time break, and Leicester made some strange decisions as they tried to stay in the game, with their usually excellent communication also absent at times. Here, when Youngs has received the ball, he didn’t have many options available to him, and three Wasps players have closed in as soon as he has started to run forwards. Whilst Youngs did sidestep Stooke before offloading to substitute tighthead prop Joe Heyes, gaining a little more ground, it was obvious that Leicester were unsure of how to deal with Wasps. One reason for this doubt is that they may have had the previous result in their minds, when Bristol Bears had come close to beating them, but the simple fact is that they weren’t at their best here.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown that the game between Wasps and Leicester Tigers, whilst not a high-scoring encounter, was a really interesting one. Both teams will know that they need to play better in future to achieve their different aims for the season, but both will also take some positives from their performances too. Wasps will obviously be the happier of the two sides, but they will also be aware that Leicester could have won this game if they had put away two missed penalties in the first half, so it really was a result built on fine margins.
As mentioned, the Premiership now takes its second European break. Wasps host defending champions Toulouse on Saturday afternoon, whilst Leicester will look to make it back-to-back wins against Connacht when they visit Galway later on in the same day.