Wasps were the masters of the play-off system when the Premiership adopted it 15 years ago, timing their run in the latter months and winning the first three finals despite never finishing at the top of the table. After flirting with bankruptcy and relegation this decade, the club who now play in Coventry rather than Wycombe will secure a home semi-final with victory over Harlequins at the Stoop on Friday night and first place if it is garlanded with a bonus point.
Victory, though, is far from assumed. Wasps have only won at the Stoop once in the league since March 2007 and lost on their last three visits. Quins have lost only two at home in the Premiership this season, with Saracens among the victims, and field the side that pushed another title-chasing side, Exeter, hard two weeks ago.
Wasps are unbeaten at their Ricoh Arena home in the league and Europe since December 2015, when Saracens overpowered them. The champions return to Coventry on the final day of the regular season when they are likely to need to win to have a chance of a home draw. That game falls one week before their European Champions Cup final against Clermont Auvergne in Edinburgh but Sarries have shown in recent years a capacity to fight on two fronts.
“We are all desperate to secure the home semi-final to reward ourselves for all the hard work that has been put in and reward the fans,” said the Wasps and England prop Matt Mullan. “We love playing at the Ricoh and we have a good record there. We will do everything on Friday to secure the semi-final there.
“We are all proud of the long unbeaten record at home and speak about what it means to us and the fans. Ever since we moved there, it was about making it a hard place for opponents to come. Resilience comes from the confidence and reassurance we have put together. We know it will be hard. Quins play quick, attacking rugby, but they had good line speed in defence against Exeter and won a number of collisions.
“We are going to have to be up for the battle physically. We have pace behind but we have to create the platform for the backs, not wait for opportunities because you can come unstuck. We have to take the game to Quins, who are chasing a top-six finish, and we have not stuttered much on the road this season.”
An exception was their Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin at the start of the month, when they were outplayed by a team they had doubled in the tournament the previous season. “That game was the line in the sand for us,” said Mullan. “Dai [Young, the director of rugby] said after the game you cannot keep saying you have to learn, you have to do it.
“When we came back for pre-season training last summer, it was about trying to learn the lessons from the previous seasons when we lost two semi-finals. We were proud of what we achieved, but said we wanted to create our own history. Leinster played smarter rugby than us but the following week we beat Northampton in the final minute by staying tight as a group and performing when it mattered.
“The standard rises in the Premiership every season. If you are not fully on your game anyone can beat you, and we had a really hard game at Bristol in the last round. At this stage of the season, it is about producing your best rugby when it matters, which is why we have to learn from want happened in Leinster.”
Mullan will tour Argentina with England in the summer, battling with Ellis Genge for a place in the Test team as Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola will be in New Zealand with the Lions. “It was nice to hear my name read out but the next few weeks are all about Wasps.
“We were disappointed as a club that Joe Launchbury and James Haskell missed out on the Lions but their reaction said it all about them: they trained that day harder than anyone else and were the first to congratulate Elliot Daly on his inclusion.”