Even this early in the Gallagher Premiership campaign, ahead of the third weekend of regular-season action, Sunday’s Midlands derby between Wasps and Leicester Tigers feels like it will provide a fascinating gauge of both teams.
Wasps director of rugby Dai Young has elected to hand a first start to star signing Lima Sopoaga, who spoke eloquently this week about how a lucrative opportunity to move to England had outweighed the allure of more New Zealand caps.
This subplot adds to the intrigue, largely because Sopoaga’s task of succeeding Danny Cipriani has been made significantly more difficult by the long-term absence of Jimmy Gopperth.
He will have to do without Cipriani’s distributing midfield accomplice for most, if not all, of this season. It is no coincidence that former Bedford Blues centre Michael Le Bourgeois makes his Wasps debut this weekend to take pick up some of the playmaking responsibilities.
Sopoaga has only been in England for a fortnight, so it is unrealistic to expect flawless synergy between him and his teammates straightaway. Indeed, during his 25-minute cameo from the bench against Exeter Chiefs last weekend, we saw a fly-half getting used to a new side.
Hot and cold
Sopoaga’s second touch saw him find Elliot Daly behind a decoy run from hooker Tom Cruse. Unfortunately for Wasps, Exeter’s outside defenders, led by centre Ollie Devoto and scrum-half Stuart Townsend on the edge, read the play and pushed up fast beyond the ball to cut off the wide channels.
Stepping back inside, Daly is tackled behind the gain-line by Harry Williams:
About 40 seconds later, after Wasps give up trying to break down Chiefs and Daly has booted clear, the Ricoh Arena witnesses a flash of Sopoaga’s spontaneous, broken-field attacking. Santiago Cordero hoists an up-and-under:
Helped by a subtle piece of shepherding from scrum-half Dan Robson, Daly gathers. Sopoaga assesses Exeter’s unusually disjointed kick-chase…
…and speeds through onto Daly’s shoulder, running beyond the 10-metre line.
One breakdown on, and it is apparent that it will take time for Sopoaga to organise Wasps’ phase-play as precisely as Cipriani did – if, of course, he wants to operate like that anyway.
Mapped here, and marked with an ‘F’, are each one of Wasps’ eight forwards. Those on the far side around Sopoaga are clearly unsure over their individual roles on this phase. Some of them, even without having offered themselves to Robson, are beyond their fly-half:
Indeed, lock Will Rowlands (inside the black circle) actually obstructs Sopoaga as he winds up a pass.
At this stage, Wasps had Juan de Jongh and Gaby Lovobalavu on the field. Neither of these men fit the bill of a classic second-distributor, a slick passer with the skills of Gopperth or Le Bourgeois.
Sopoaga might expect such a player to be sat in behind hard-running forwards like so in order to provide a link to the wide channels:
As it happens, Sopoaga sends up Zurabi Zhvania and the replacement loosehead prop bumps off Devoto:
Wasps end up with a good result despite their uncertain structure. With a starting back row of Ashley Johnson, Nizaam Carr and Nathan Hughes, who has carried the ball 42 times already this season, Sopoaga will have some gain-line weapons among his pack on Sunday.
The hope, for Young, is that these forwards can stay fit to galvanise a star-studded backline as Wasps get used to a new man steering the tiller.
Encouragingly for Wasps fans, Sopoaga was visible calling moves prior to a couple of lineouts. Before this next passage, he took an assertive part in a huddle:
The hosts run an innovative play, which starts with Daly at scrum-half. The aim is to drag Cordero, Exeter’s blindside wing, in-field. As Johnson carries, Sopoaga is nestled in behind his back-rower.
Meanwhile, Josh Bassett edges towards the far touchline:
As Sopoaga arcs onto the near side to sell the play further, Daly drops back to make himself available at first-receiver for this bounce-back move. Fortunately for Exeter, scrum-half Townsend is alert on the far edge:
He pushes up and forces a turnover:
Even so, the moved called by Sopoaga – in which he aims to use himself as bait to divert the attention of Exeter’s defence – reflects his intelligence and unselfishness as a player.
Less than nine minutes before the end of an eventual 42-31 for Wasps, Sopoaga takes another pass from Robson inside his own 22:
In slippery conditions, he opts to swing the ball over the Lovobalavu. The pass dips towards its target and, sensing an opportunity to force a turnover, Exeter press up.
Wing Ian Whitten abandons the back-field…
…and nearly grabs Exeter’s second interception try of the game when Lovobalavu tries to shovel a miss-pass onto Daly, with Christian Wade waiting wider:
Again, the presence of a player like Le Bourgeois or Gopperth at second-receiver would have given more justification to Sopoaga’s decision to spread the ball from deep. Finding out about the strengths of colleagues and learning to pick appropriate options is a time-consuming process.
Sopoaga is an expert kick-passer, so a few cross-field chips in behind opposing wings should be expected as he settles in. But relying on him to direct runners as forcefully as his predecessor – Wade recently joked on the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast that Cipriani “would scream at you if you were a metre off” – would be unwise. Just as Sopoaga adapts to the Premiership, Wasps must adapt to his leadership style.
The All Black’s enthusiasm cannot be questioned. His final touch in this game came at scrum-half as he attempted to inject pace into Wasps’ phase-play.
Leicester are fielding a new centre partnership of Gareth Owen and Manu Tuilagi, so Sopoaga will be confident of testing the Tigers midfield. We could be in for a helter-skelter points-fest.
Whatever the result, Wasps have to be patient with their new recruit.