A bonus-point victory against the Premiership and European champions was a tactical triumph for the Wasps head coach Lee Blackett. It showed how far they have come under him in 11 months, evolving from a team committed to open rugby who too often left themselves open into a pragmatic, adaptable and hard-nosed all-weather side.
In the last two rounds, they have won at Sale and emphatically defeated Exeter, two aggressively attritional sides. Blackett said he was not motivated by revenge for the narrow defeat in October’s final, but wanted to make a statement. His selection was tailored to the opposition. James Gaskell was moved from the second to the back row with the foraging flanker Thomas Young among the replacements on the benchwith defence providing the springboard to victory. They set out to win the physical contest and did so to such an extent that there was no part of the game where the Chiefs were superior.
Gaskell added height to the home side’s lineout and he was better equipped to defuse Exeter’s driving maul. Wasps came to resemble the champions, defending their own line with zeal, scrummaging powerfully after the prop Tom West overcame early difficulties and even scoring the game’s opening try via a favourite Chiefs ploy, the tap penalty.
It was scored by Gaskell, who later added a second, helped over the line by his captain Joe Launchbury after West had been held up. Exeter had earlier repelled a rolling maul but even they came to buckle against the sustained, controlled ferocity of opponents who kept to their script: injuries and international rest periods meant more of the Chiefs’ squad of 23 were involved in last October’s heavy defeat here than in the final three weeks later.
Exeter had to go wide to find a route back into the contest but there was no weak spot in Wasps’ defence. There was always the penalty kick to touch for the Chiefs, and after 30 minutes they were well set up when Launchbury, who led by example throughout by example, entered a breakdown from the side and found himself defending a lineout five metres from his line.
An Exeter rolling maul and try are like day following night, but as the line beckoned Gaskell got his hand on the ball and held on. Wasps were awarded a scrum, cleared their lines and a few minutes later should have extended their lead when Jacob Umaga produced a rare break that freed Paolo Odogwu, who was hauled down five metres from the try line by Olly Woodburn.
Wasps had to be satisfied with a Lima Sopoaga penalty to give them an 8-0 interval lead after Dave Ewers had gone off his feet at a ruck. There had been little open play: eight of the first 10 scrums ended with a penalty or a free-kick and both sides made unforced handling errors on a day when sleet gave way, temporarily, to the sun. With Wasps set on taking on Exeter at their strongest points, there were not going to be many frills.
The question was whether Wasps could maintain their aggression. They were forced to replace Jack Willis with Young at half time after the England flanker suffered a side strain while Exeter brought on the Wales prop Tomas Francis four minutes after the restart. The Chiefs have never been kept scoreless in the Premiership and they scored against the run of play when Joe Simmonds glided between the two home props. When he was tackled by Dan Robson, Richard Capstick stepped outside Will Rowlands and rode a weak tackle by Sopoaga to score from 40 metres.
It demanded a response from Wasps and one duly came. They scored two tries in six minutes, first through Gaskell again who finished off after Umaga’s inside pass to the bustling replacement prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen. Launchbury was involved again as Sopoaga then finished off a lineout move that saw Michael Le Bourgeois create space for Josh Bassett and leave Ian Whitten uncertain which way to turn.
Wasps were well serviced by their replacements. Simon McIntyre scored their final two tries, the first after Capstick was in the sin bin on an afternoon when his side conceded 18 penalties. “We wanted to make a statement,” said Blackett. “It was a big defensive effort and no one should underestimate our pack.”
His opposite number, Rob Baxter, challenged his players to respond to a rare reverse. “It was a slap in the face, but sport is about how you deal with a defeat,” said Baxter.