Fixture: Wasps v London Irish
Competition: Gallagher Premiership, Round 11
Date: Sunday 26th December 2021
Stadium: Coventry Building Society Arena
London Irish are back on their travels with a visit to the Coventry Building Society Arena this Boxing Day, facing former London rivals Wasps in Round 11 of the Gallagher Premiership.
Declan Kidney’s Exiles have emerged victorious on their last two trips to the Coventry Building Society Arena, an Ollie Hassell-Collins try and 11 points from Paddy Jackson sealing a narrow 16-13 victory last season.
Both Clubs will be well rested heading into the game, after postponements in their respective Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Round 2 games against Top 14 outfits Toulouse and Brive respectively.
With a tricky Champions Cup schedule that saw them surrender a home loss to Munster in Round 1, Wasps return to Gallagher Premiership action two places behind the Exiles in ninth spot, despite a winless run in their last six games.
Nevertheless, spirited conclusions to their previous two Premiership outings saw Jacob Umaga’s brace secure losing and try bonus points against Gloucester, whilst only a missed Jimmy Gopperth conversion prevented them taking maximum points at Sixways against Worcester Warriors.
The boss – Lee Blackett
Lee Blackett, originally Wasps’ Backs Coach under previous Director of Rugby Dai Young, was appointed to the Head Coach post upon the latter’s departure back in February 2020.
With Wasps only having three Premiership wins to their name that February, the young coach directed the team to 11 wins in the final 14 regular season games, motivating the team to – in his own words – ‘remember why they play the game and enjoy rugby again’.
The 39 year-old was able to guide the Club to a fourth play-off appearance in five years in a matter of months, but two late Joe Simmonds penalties in the final against Exeter Chiefs meant Wasps were denied a seventh top-flight honour.
As a versatile back, Blackett launched into his playing career with Fylde and continued with Rotherham Titans, a team he would captain and later coach to two Championship play-off berths before his arrival in Coventry.
Blackett still retains the record of the fastest try ever scored in the Premiership, clocking in at a rapid 8.28 seconds from the kick-off in a 16-15 home win for Leeds Carnegie against Newcastle Falcons.
One to Watch – Alfie Barbeary
“We spoke at the end of last season, myself Eddie Jones and him, and Alfie wants to play back-row – his appetite and his passion is to be there, so he'll be a number eight,” Lee Blackett said of the youthful jewel in Wasps’ powerhouse back-row, Alfie Barbeary.
A converted front-row forward, Barbeary earned England Under 20 caps and his first Premiership appearance at the front of the pack, but has now been earmarked to build on his promising reputation alongside the likes of the Willis brothers at Wasps.
Barbeary – who has recently returned from consecutive hamstring injuries – only featured in the opening half against Munster in the Champions Cup, but dotted down for his second score in three appearances this season.
Having been part of the England training camp in the build-up to the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup final against France, a syndesmosis injury preceded a hamstring tear in April that ruled him out of any development minutes with the international set-up over the summer.
Boisterous with ball in hand, the 21 year-old’s powerful running has aided in his try record of 10 in 17 appearances in Black & Gold.
Classic Encounter – Wasps 20, London Irish 23 – February 15th 2014 – Aviva Premiership
London Irish walked away from Adams Park for the last time in the Premiership with a 23-20 win, Shane Geraghty’s drop goal sealing the victory over their London adversaries.
Buoyed off the back of another tricky win against Saracens in the previous round, the Exiles raced into a lead with tries from Ian Humphries and David Paice from short distance.
Soon-to-be-Exile James Short’s converted score narrowed a 14-point deficit, before Tomas O’Leary was dismissed for a stamp, leaving the visitors a man down for the remaining 32 minutes.
Both Joe Carlisle and James O’Connor were on the mark with seven penalties between them and – with nothing between the sides on the scoreboard in the tense closing ten minutes – up stepped Shane Geraghty to slot the vital three points from the hand.
Tries: James Short
Penalties: Joe Carlisle (5)
Tries: Ian Humphreys, David Paice
Conversions: James O'Connor (2)
Penalties: James O'Connor (2)
Drop Goal: Shane Geraghty
Proclaiming Wasps to be one of the best cultures he has worked in, hooker Michael van Vuuren believes the adversity his Club faces at present will ‘only make them stronger.’
"I am a big believer when things are easy and you're winning, it makes life a lot easier,” he said “but it's how a team and a squad deals with adversity, that is a big indicator for me.
“I've seen in the past, when the pressure is on, that's when things tend to fall apart, that hasn't been the case; everyone has kept their heads down, everyone is positive, everyone is working hard and everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
Possessing an abundance of Premiership experience with Bath, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints, the South African was recruited as cover amidst what can only be described as an injury crisis – something those in Coventry will not be using to rationalise form.
“I see this is a very special coaching group and a very special group of players,” he said.
“Regardless of what the results might say at the moment, the facts are they are dealing with a difficult situation on the injury front, and I know they won't make excuses for that, but at the end of the day, that does play a big role.”
(Preview compiled by Ryan Fitzgerald-Nolan)