Lee Blackett is a head coach going somewhere and Leicester are on an upward spiral. Two thoughts after last weekend’s Premiership round, another to be affected by Covid cancellations, now with Saturday’s east Midlands derby at Franklin’s Gardens a fifth victim.
The manner in which Wasps defeated Exeter in a repeat of last October’s Premiership final was impressive. The Chiefs were below full strength – although not as much as they were at Ashton Gate last August when they showed Bristol how far they had to go – but such was the systematic way they were picked apart, it influenced the margin rather than the outcome.
The following day, Leicester were locked in another struggle, this time at home to Bath. George Ford, who returned to Welford Road after the West Country club had sacked his father Mike as head coach, took it out on his former employers by employing a high kick with a difference.
The Bath full-back Anthony Watson has seen many a Ford kick as an England colleague as well as a club opponent, but the spirals the fly-half sent into the air were precisely measured and had the maximum impact, fading as Watson went to catch the ball and making a knock-on more likely than a catch.
The first thought was that if it caught on, it would lead to an increase in kicking at a time when there is a surfeit of it in the professional game, but it is not designed to result in a bout of kick tennis. It is an attacking option which usually gained Leicester possession as well as territory and left Watson wondering where to position himself.
Fly-halves used to employ the spiral kick to find touch, but its tendency to fade on its downward path contained an element of risk that kicking coaches in the professional age snuffed out by employing a technique from Aussie Rules in which distance is traded in for accuracy. The spiral bomb has taken a long time to emerge from the laboratory, and it carries the danger of sliding off the side of the kicker’s boot and leaving their team exposed defensively, but Ford turned it into a long form of the kick-pass.
The pity is Ford will have little time to develop it before the Six Nations. Leicester are not playing this weekend while their next scheduled match, against Bayonne in the European Challenge Cup, is in doubt after the Top 14 club unilaterally pulled out of the tournament after a number of positive Covid-19 tests. They may be ordered to reconsider, but with the Tigers having their own virus problems in recent weeks, will any of their number be comfortable travelling there?
Wasps are due in Montpellier next week, armed with four successive victories after an uncertain start to the season when they were well beaten at Gloucester and lost at home to Newcastle. It is 11 months since Blackett became head coach, at first in an interim capacity, after the departure of the long-serving director of rugby Dai Young.
His appointment appeared to be based on finance rather than ambition. The heady days after 2014, when Wasps abandoned High Wycombe for Coventry and signed players like Willie le Roux and Kurtley Beale to complement Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and Christian Wade, had long faded. The club had pressing concerns before the pandemic and the squad had lost much of its glitter: only six of the side that started the 2017 Premiership final against Exeter were around for the return three years later.
It has proved an inspired choice. Shortly after he was appointed full time, Blackett stated he did not want anyone, players or coaches, to change. “I want them to be who they are,” he said. “We were in a hole, but the players had the belief that we could turn it around.”
Wasps have won 17 of the 21 matches Blackett has taken charge of. His player management has been exceptional: before he took over, having been attack coach since 2015, they had been one of the Premiership’s more adventurous sides but they had become increasingly brittle. He looked to add rather than take away and the manner in which they took on Exeter, at the strongest points of the Chiefs – scrum, lineout, maul and gainline – while still moving the ball when it was on showed what he had developed in a short time.
He is the second youngest coach in the Premiership and has yet to be touted as a contender to succeed Eddie Jones with England, but that looks a matter of time given the way he is proving himself as a selector and a tactician: Wasps have become multidimensional. He chose the second-row James Gaskell in the back row against Exeter rather than the turnover specialist Thomas Young. It was a selection tailored for the opposition which had a telling impact on the game, and not because Gaskell scored two tries. He gave Wasps added height in the lineout against a side that kicks penalties into touch, rather than at goal, and he helped counter the Chiefs’ rolling maul.
The week before, at Sale, Blackett had rested his England contingent and fielded young half-backs, Charlie Atkinson and Will Porter. Atkinson scored an individual try which brought to mind a young Cipriani while Porter resembled Dan Robson in his speed of thought and action. Blackett is not afraid to promote academy players and Alfie Barbeary was making headlines until an ankle injury forced him out until February or March.
Saracens may not be around, but Exeter will not have it their own way this season. On Friday night Wasps are at Bath, whose forwards failed to deliver at Leicester, and in Blackett they are meeting someone who is not taking a spiral staircase to the top.
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