Four years ago in Salta, Christian Wade won his maiden England cap and duly lacerated Argentina. He had eye-catching parts in all three of the tourists’ first-half tries in a 32-30 victory. An electric performance led to his selection in the British and Irish Lions squad as an injury replacement a few days afterwards.
Due to a combination of untimely injuries – Stuart Lancaster was poised to start Wade in the autumn of 2013 – and doubts over his defensive abilities, that day remains Wade’s sole Test appearance.
This bewilders his admirers, and following a trademark solo try aided a last-gasp 32-30 win over Northampton on Sunday, Wasps director of rugby Dai Young insisted the 25 year-old has added enough dimensions to satisfy the requirements of an onlooking Eddie Jones on another trip to South America this summer.
“I’ve said many times that I wouldn’t swap Christian for anybody,” Young said. “People have talked about his defensive frailties, but that was a couple of years ago. I think he’s put that to bed really.
“He’s shown that he can defend and you don’t see him miss too many tackles. He’s making far more better decisions – when to come in and when to stay out and so on.
“But when he gets the ball, something is going to happen. He really stresses defences and he’s far stronger and more powerful than people give him credit for. We all know about his gas as well. He’s had a really good couple of months and he can’t do any more. His goal is to get back on the national stage and he’s doing as much as he can.
“It’d be a big old plane if Eddie listened to every coach, because every coach wants all of their players to go, and I’m no different. There are quality wingers in England, but for me Wadey is right up there with any of them. The more opportunities we have to get the ball in his hands, the more chance we have of winning.
“I’m just really pleased he’s a Wasps player and I’d be thrilled if he went onto that international stage. I think he deserves it, but I’m not the man picking it.”
Young added that he would be “very surprised” if Warren Gatland does not seriously consider a surprise Lions call-up for his in-form wide man, who made one exceptional defensive read with a robust tackle to stifle a promising first-half attack from Northampton.
However, it was Wade’s stunning finish early in the second half, hauling Wasps 20-18 ahead, that showcased his remarkable ability to conjure tries from unremarkable positions.
Ashley Johnson’s midfield burst brought the hosts into Northampton territory and the ball was worked right via Elliot Daly to Wade, facing five covering defenders. He jinked to the outside, dinked over the Saints line and sped through to dot down.
It was an extraordinary blend of skill, opportunism and athleticism, but tries such as these now seems almost ordinary for Wade, an arch-marksman with 17 in 24 games this season across all competitions and a club record 81 in his Wasps career.
Young does not enjoy the tag of great entertainers, high-scorers that suffer regular lapses of concentration, but his Wasps side are making that reputation stick. This win came on the final play with a four-try bonus, reinstating their five-point lead over Exeter at the top of the Premiership table. Still, it highlighted familiar frailties as well as box-office strengths.
It was sun-bathed Coventry rather than soggy Dublin, yet Wasps seemed to suffer a hangover from their comprehensive Champions Cup defeat to Leinster and went into half-time 18-13 down as Northampton, inspired by Courtney Lawes, capitalised on a litany of errors to score three tries of their own.
“A lot of our defensive problems stem from when we have the ball,” Young explained. “When we’re loose and casual and end up giving the ball away and then obviously put ourselves under pressure like we did today. I thought the first 20 minutes was similar to the first 20 against Leinster.”
Although Wade’s score was complemented by a snipe from Joe Simpson, Northampton stole back in front thanks to Ahsee Tuala and Teimana Harrison. A profligate Stephen Myler, who missed four kicks at goal, allowed Wasps an opening and, after a series of mauls laid siege to Saints line, Matt Mullan burrowed over to win the game.
A home semi-final will be precious for Young, who was also heartened by Nathan Hughes’ display from the bench. And the Welshman is wary of how the champions are ending the campaign.
“Saracens are the team to beat,” he said. “They are very efficient and they seem they have another gear. But we know we have another couple of gears in us.”