Emotional rollercoaster leaves depleted Wasps clinging on in quest to achieve the unthinkable against Exeter

Jack de Menezes
·3-min read
Wasps are without four players who would have featured in their Premiership final squad (PA)
Wasps are without four players who would have featured in their Premiership final squad (PA)

There was always a danger that the Premiership would be decided by the coronavirus pandemic, but few predicted the heartbreak of watching your club run out at Twickenham knowing you should have been there with them.

The announcement on Wednesday that Wasps will get the chance to fight for the Premiership final was good news for most, but for 11 squad members it brought confirmation of the fears they already had. Although Wasps will face Exeter Chiefs on Saturday night, those 11 will not as they are already locked away in self-isolation, having either tested positive for coronavirus or been in contact with someone who has.

Of those unavailable, head coach Lee Blackett confirmed that four of them would have been in the matchday squad that will attempt to stretch their recent record to 16 Premiership wins in 17 matches. The jubilation that Wasps will go to Twickenham will have quickly worn off for those four.

Blackett admitted that it is a “gut-wrenching” end to the season for those individuals, not least because rugby union was on course to escape relatively unscathed when it came to match cancellations. That was until the final round of the season, when Sale Sharks suffered an outbreak that saw two matches forfeited and the build-up to the play-offs clouded in doubt.

That feeling of helplessness spread from Sale to Wasps over the last fortnight, with their fate left in the hands of the testers. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the news arrived.

"I was in bed and kept checking if the medical staff were online on WhatsApp, stalking them," Blackett revealed. "A fair few of us as staff were up at two and most of us didn't go back to sleep.

"You'd think you'd be able to get back to sleep after positive news, but it was the excitement and the realisation of what's just happened.

"For us it's been such an emotional week. We needed to lower emotions yesterday. Everybody was excited to be back, but we needed to control ourselves because we need to save that emotion for the weekend."

Wasps have been unable to train for a week because of the mini-outbreak, with the squad only returning to the training field on Wednesday to rush through preparations to face the newly-crowned European champions. The one silver lining, Blackett hopes, is that his side will be as fresh as possible whereas Rob Baxter’s side are coming off a hard-fought victory over Racing 92 last weekend - not to mention the celebrations that come with claiming a first Champions Cup crown.

Baxter expressed his relief on Wednesday that Wasps will be able to take their “rightful place” in the season finale, but it feels somewhat different to the 2017 Premiership final between these same two sides. The talk ahead of the final three years ago was of Exeter’s time to shine, having knocked out reigning champions Saracens thanks largely to that Henry Slade kick to touch in the semi-finals.

Jimmy Gopperth is one of just seven Wasps players who experienced the 2017 final defeatGetty
Jimmy Gopperth is one of just seven Wasps players who experienced the 2017 final defeatGetty

Sixteen of the Exeter side that day remain with the club today, and not only have they learned from the painful defeats along the way, they are starting to pick up a thing or two on what it takes to win these big games too. Wasps, on the other hand, have only seven players remaining from that extra-time 23-20 defeat, with the likes of Danny Cipriani, Elliot Daly and Nathan Hughes all long gone to pastures new.

How many of those players will be able to feature remains to be seen, with the identity of the four unavailable matchday regulars unknown at this stage, and despite Wasps’ formidable form since the sport restarted, it seems that coronavirus may finally get the upper hand. Whether Wasps had enough experience on this stage at all to rival Exeter was a big enough question without this week’s events, but without a full armoury to pick from, Wasps may just find themselves lacking where it matter most on the biggest of stages.

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