Monday, 3 March 2014

End of Aviva Premiership Season 2013/14 final quarter - update 4 - 12th May 2014

Final 1/4 Season Review 2013/14

Final game of the season completed in the Aviva Premiership so time to look back at our whole season  in the AP and try and make sense of the stats. The AP is also a means to higher competition and higher funding hence the aim is straight forward, a top six finish, first and foremost, then secondly to survive and build. To this end we have failed to get into the top six this season. However with the goal posts being moved we still have an opportunity to achieve top flight European Competition next season via a two legged play off as reward for a 7th placed finish. Should we achieve this then without question the season must be classified as a massive success due to what it means in terms of the increased status and the financial implications. Why is this important, well we are yet to know the breakdown of the financial implications for not making the top flight Euro Comp. My concern is expressed in previous blogs regarding the new Euro competition and what is now becoming a clear divide in the AP between top 6 and bottom 6. How the cake is cut will either make this a more acheivable target or a more difficult task to bridge. We will have to wait. Equally we should, whilst comparing this season to previous seasons, factor in that we were working significantly below full funding and the wage cap, in season 2011/12 and have, since about January 2013, had full funding available to maximise the wage cap, so much more of a level playing field since then. So has our AP performance improved ?

I would think is fair to say that emotionally for supporters has been another roller coster of a season. The biggest high being the Stinger match at HQ which lifted spirits, provided a good quality performance on the field and of course that much needed win. Momentum had been gained looking forward to the play offs v Stade. But then another down v Saints away - I think again fair to say most supporters were looking at a 30 to 40 pt defeat and ready to accept this as this would have still maintained the momentum. However shipping 74pts in 60mins brought everyone back down to earth, reminding us of the fragile nature of our squad and seasons performances, up and down, up and down. I do feel for the players involved in this Saints match as many/most were, unbelievably, not match fit as they have hardly played. I remember the winning mantra of previous coaches "make sure you look after the 16 to 42 squad players as a first priority, the 1 to 15 will look after themselves". Part of the cause of the erratic performance of the team must be assigned to lack of a match programme for the back up group of players and would for me be the first area for the club management to address for next season. A full season of B team matches is a must in my book.

Ok, just looking at the cold hard stats the overall picture looks very similar to season 2012/13. We have moved up one position in the league, overall pts total increased by one -  pts scored are less, points against increased from the 2012/13 and 2011/12 seasons - tries scored are slightly down - tries conceded also slightly up. The gap between the top six finishers and bottom six finishers again shows a clear divide in terms of the points for and against record as it turns negative below sixth place. The gap between our final league position and distance off 6th place has narrowed from 12pts in season 2012/13 to 8pts this season. We have won the same amount of games as the previous season, however we have won less games at home and more away. Back to back AP consecutive wins this season totalled  2 as opposed to 5 in season 2012/13. Our Feb onwards AP record remains a consistant problem as with the previous two seasons achieving one extra win this season in 10 games as opposed to 2 wins from 9 games in previous seasons. So mostly much of a muchness with the holy grail 7th place being secured - the honest appraisal of this however is others below us have slipped as opposed to us having improved that much.....we need to be aware that this is the case and do need to start beating the top six level teams who against in 12 games we managed one win. Overall our attacking points works out as 4th equal in the AP League and our defence pts against places us 9th.

So on the face of it the stats and the patterns of the season appear the same as last season, however dig a little deeper and there are some stark differences. This season the forwards have matched/outscored the backs in terms of tries, this is a massive shift in emphasis. Also the majority of the tries scored have come in the final 20 minute match quarter. What this reflects is a significant change in approach to style of play, now being much more a fowards orientated, a safety first risk free approach. Now this could simply be a reaction to having been vulnerable to driving lineouts and the scrum in previous years and/or not having confidence in the back line to look after the ball or produce the scores. As mentioned earlier in previous quarterly blogs the change of style of 10 was very likely to cause a change in the back line threat. This is not in any way judgemental simply recognising the difference between how Nicky Robinson and Andy Goode approach the game and how that impacts the patterns and characteristics of the team. The issue here is that when we start to play catch up rugby we are very successful. Yes we are inaccurate and lack support but with our pace within the team we pose a threat. Take this away and 1) we are easy to manage and 2) we will never develop the accuracy and support required to compete at the top level unless we go there week in week out from the start. What I am saying is the stats show we should be more confident to attack with ball in hand from the outset as opposed to a slower more controlled territory based game. We have the players now to frighten teams and with the likes of Rob MIllar (10 in my book) and Leiua coming in this fear would only increase - however we do have to move out of the comfort zone into the higher risk zone to maximise the benefits from all this pace.

Equally other changes and events need to be factored into any analysis. Scrum law changes have reduced the impacts and made it easier to involve the more skilful props who could well have added to the increase foward game emphasis, basically scrummaging this season is simply not just a battle of size, thank goodness. Also many have commented regarding Christian Wade missing being a factor. Well I'm sure it has been, but at the time of his injury the foward/back scoring ratio was the same. It was also very predictable not to expect the same level of try scoring from Christian and Tom V due to the change of the 10 and this appears to have turned out to be the case.

With the announced recruitment to date we certainly look to have more strength in depth for season 2014/15. Personally I feel a top line established 10 would be my highest priority, accepting that Jackson, Carlisle and Goode offer us very good options but if we aspire to be at the toplook at the teams above us - Farrell/Hodgson, Myler, Williams/Flood, Evans, Ford and Cipriani - this is what we are competing against. The 10 sets the tone the style of a team, our 10's offer a wide range of top level skills but vary widely from one to the other and mostly offer only one direction of playing. On top of this having more strength is depth is only of value if it supported with another match schedule for these players. We want them coming into the starting line up match fit. Only so much can be achieved on the training park. 

We also need to address the Feb slide issue. The training regime needs to be monitored. Craig White was famous for walking out onto the training ground and telling the coach to stop training now...."your 37mins with the players is up...." etc. Just to be clear, players can be prepared to the nth degree by great conditioners....but if then the coaches take them out on the field and work them for too long, keep them on their feet too long, from a mental side drag them into analysis meeting etc etc too much they will not be physically or mentally up to the task, which is to perform on the match day. Sharper minds, sharper bodies are required. 

We have had 3 seasons now when the team has under performed from Feb onwards. Interestingly when we have had a challenge before us against a strong team we have performed well, although still maybe lost. It has mostly been against opposition we expect to beat that the performance and result has fallen. This indicates the issue clearly. We can raise our game with a focussed mind set but as the fatigue builds during the season if we let this mind set slip physically we are also weakened and hence cannot raise our game. Now this is very much conjecture on my part but ask yourself how this relates to some of the games you have witnessed towards the end of this season and previously. If this is not the case I would dearly like to hear some other explanations - coincidence is one I suppose, bad luck another !

In summary we cannot forget that in 2011/12 we were just about down and out and in need of emergency action. The club management have done a great job to keep it all together and progress our league position to a point where we have a chance in our control for top level European Competition next season. The skills required to make this progression should not be dismissed, it has been immense achievement. We are now at point where if we are to make a full recovery significant further actions need to occur with regard to the further development of the club and squad. It's a little bit like being saved by the paramedics out on the street and delivered alive to hospital and now we need the expertise of the surgeons to make a full recovery. We need a stadium. We need a deeper quality squad. We need consistency. We need accuracy. We need a B team and/or U23 type full season match programme. We need a top six finish next season. We have the quality, power and pace within the squad.

The final question I struggle with is do we need top level European Competition next season ? Well, provided the financial rewards between level 1 and 2 are not too great then NO. However even if the rewards differential is great there are 6 AP places available next season and most likely 1 or 2 of the current teams will still be open to attack. So at this moment in time I feel a strong, competitive account of ourselves in the play offs will suffice, meaning we can move through the close season with great expectation of current squad players being strengthened with new acquisitions and look forward to a strong challenge for a top six finish in season 2014/15. If we come out on top in the play offs all well and good but need to be realistic about our expectation. We can and should go into these play off matches with a mind set of nothing to lose and everything to gain - attack, attack, attack from minute 1 to minute 160.
3rd March 2014

Continuing with my horse racing analogy from my last blog (below) it unfortunately appears our form over the past few seasons has once again returned and whilst seemingly having positioned ourselves well in the early part of the race we have not trained appropriately for the challenge, we seem to have a one miler running in a mile and half distance race.

However moving away from the analogy, rugby is not not the same as a horse race. All the players are capable or should be of going the distance and indeed should be prepared to to peak towards the end of the season when trophies and/or targets are to be achieved. So a deeper look and assessment of the issues need to made. Over the last 3 seasons the off the field activity has clearly played a part in the seasons outcomes but it is now a year on at least since these off the the field issues were addressed, resolved with little or no input from the playing side of the club, so they could go about their business in a normal fashion, albeit under resourced. Whilst these off field issue had direct impact on performance in terms of squad size and quality recruitment, we have managed to maintain high quality/top quality players and most importantly attract more into the squad. Equally we have a young group of players who have the capacity to improve.

All clubs endure high injury lists, this is the nature of the game. Our medical teams have changed over the 3 year period, however there is no evidence to suggest our medical team are or were less capable then any of the others, my experience is they work very hard and are of top quality. Likewise conditioning teams have changed and again there is no evidence to suggest that they are or were less capable then any other clubs conditioning staff. Indeed if we cast our mind back to pre season the message coming from the club was as positive as it has ever been from coaches and players alike that the pre season was one of the most demanding and beneficial they had experienced. 

As I have eluded too in the previous quarterly blogs, I have questioned if we "have the legs" to take us through to the end of the season based on previous outcomes from previous seasons. Do we have the ability to challenge when the pace picks up and suggest we need to wait and see. Well we have done that now and although we are still in the hunt for a top 6th or 7th place we have failed to take advantage of the our strong early season form.

As supporters we cannot expect our team to perform at the very top level every week, this does not happen in any sporting discipline. It is all about understanding the challenge and preparing appropriately. Our team have the very best direction and guidance in terms of, medical support, conditioning, coaching support and nutritional input. So why is this seemingly not transferring into the on field performance ? It the performance that most supporters appear to be concerned about. Not the winning or losing, we can all accept sometimes a team is better on the day tactically, have the luck of the roll of the dice and/or have greater resources to enhance their performance.

When fatigue sets in, long term fatigue, which I believe is the case, this is the hardest to overcome. Maybe in a one off cup match or in our case two seasons back in a relegation battle the mind can dig deeper to create the energy and will to overcome this. Without wishing to undermine any other teams and looking at the recent games, Bath away was a much bigger challenge than say Irish or Sale at home and our performance was much stronger. So my hope is that now all the remaining games will appear as a bigger challenge and the squad, and by that I mean players and  coaches will be able to rise above the apparent fatigue of a long and demanding season and present strong, competitive performances. Every match through to the end of the season needs to be viewed, in mind set terms, as a Cup Final. We then may still be able to achieve a 6th place, it is achievable.

At the end of the season this key issue, now an established pattern, needs to be addressed. My feeling, as was my feeling last season and the season before is that players are on the feet too much during the normal working week. That is, whilst coaches want their pound of flesh from the players to work with them on their particular, specialist areas these need to managed carefully and considered as a overall assessment of their ability to perform. GPS technology provides vast amounts of information regarding players suitability to train and play however it does not provide information on mind set. That is a player can return results showing he is at their peak during training, but, but, but it does not provide any information with regard to mind set. It is to some degree the science of hindsight.

All coaches, players alike always refer to the well used phrase "we must work harder", this is all well and good however completely improve, players/ coaches/performance "need to work smarter" understand the issues do what is appropriate. Some players need pulling out of the gym as they will work and work and work, completely taking their eye off the point which is the match at the end of the week. Time after time I have had parents contacting me about their lads, concerned that they are doing too much...they most often are/were correct. No GPS, just a gut feel. However the "we must work harder" mantra had overwhelmed their lads and common sense gone out the window. Work hard for sure, but  make sure it is appropriate and not just work for the sake of work 
-  to get in the room it is advisable to open the door as opposed to smashing the wall down !!! 

Time and time again I have heard coaches saying " we worked on this all week and they still didn't do what I told them" ....well they won't, because every player has a default reaction to every situation and simply by doing it a few times during the week will not change this default position which kicks in when under pressure in match situations. It will take months to change this default reaction position....ask Nick Faldo how long it took him to change his golf swing. So for Wasps, changing the default position at this stage is not possible. We are what we are, which is very good with exceptional, high quality players. How do we get the best out of them over the final quarter of the season ? Cut training runs back to minimal length, ensure the challenge of a 6th place finish is highlighted in a positive "let's do it, we can do it " fashion, set the short term target and ensure everyone, back room staff, supporters and all understand this is what the last quarter of the season is about. COYW.

30th Dec 2013

Half Way Round the Block - how we looking - 30th Dec 2013

So 11 Premiership games completed, the runners are pretty bunched in mid field with one seemingly trailed off looking at being pulled up and 2 others going strongly out in front. This race over the last two season has taken the same shape and indeed the Wasps stallion is very much in a similar position within the midfield pack. Previous seasons have seen Wasps unable to stay the pace when the others press the go button, however the talk from the stables suggest this year could see Wasps being more competive during the final run ins. 

In season 2011/12 Wasps were seemingly in a secure position at half way but the tank emptied almost immediately before our eyes mostly due to a lack of tactical nous against the strongly improving Exeter, where taking up the inside rail and the two points available would have enabled an easy run in finishing in 10th or 11th - remembering in the climate and with the massive disruption at the Twyford Avenue stables this would have been success.

For season 2012/13 Wasps were again travelling well approaching the final stretch only for the tank to again empty rapidity. However, lessons had been learned and Wasps coasted into a comfortable 8th position and had indeed already started preparations for season 2013/14. Earlier expectation had not been achieved but fires in the supporters bellies had been rekindled and indeed most if not all would have grabbed at 8th place at the start of the race.

These two previous years had shown a clear pattern and areas for development leading into this 2013/14 race. So far lessons seem to have been taken on board and addressed, with much more attacking scope, ability to perform in variety of conditions, ability to defend challenges and critically more support available in the event of injury, something that had very much influenced performance in the previous two years.

So as we approach the final furlongs we simply need to maintain the early stage form, remain competitive and be able to respond to any increased pace. Basically we are all holding our breath waiting to see if the adjustments made over the past few season have had the desired affect in the final run and our tank does not empty as quickly as in previous years. No need to go quicker, trick is to not slow down as fast as the others.

Here is a link to current and previous form - Important to remember stats tell you everything about what has happened and nothing about what will happen. 

With regard to the race so far and Wasps current standing, well from similar positions we have won races at domestic and European status. This could happen again, our charge is young and still developing, far from the finished article. Only the next few months will show if we have prepared correctly to deal with the second half of the race which has been the consistent weakness or if indeed as the signs indicate we are handily placed on the rails to mount a serious challenge for some tangible achievement. May be not a trophy but may be simply enough to interest the photo finish judge.

Here's to an exciting and successful 2014.

Season to date - written 6th Oct 2013

Bit of a break in the Aviva so a good time to reflect and look forward to the challenges ahead. First the facts. 5 games done, 3 away games and 2 at home, 9pts on board. Maximum pts available from the 5 games is 25 so from the simple equation we are on course for 36/37pts from the 110pt season max. This would manifest itself I would estimate as a league finish around 9th or10th. 

Now, don't know about you but my realistic expectation from the first 5 games was about 9pts probably less, yes hoping for more, but think 9pts is a good return based on the large turn around in the squad and the recent results history of the fixtures completed to date - Exeter/Sale away etc. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and yes we could have had a greater haul but for a width of a post and some better individual tackling, however 9pts is what it is and I think a good squad achievement to build upon.

Ok so now for the Mystic Meg bit. Rather than simply speculate or guess wildly again it would be better to base expectations on previous history, long and short term and make a considered assessment of future challenges. Clubs tend to have an identity, if you're asked to describe other clubs within the Premiership I think it is fair to say that from a sample of 20 or so rugby knowledgable people certain adjectives would emerge. For example with Leicester - solid and strong in the set piece areas, good depth of squad, play for 80mins, give little away, competitive, consistent and ruthless attitude etc - may not hear the words flair, flamboyant, adventurous quite so often. Let me be clear this is not in any way judgemental simply what they are. 

So short term to date, this season what adjectives can we apply to Wasps ? From commentary I have read or heard, I would offer - organised in defence, competitive, proficient in set piece, 80min fitness, scoring options throughout the team ( not just wingers...a change from last year) and well managed game from 10 would be the positives the work ons would be more creativity in attack, greater accuracy and this may only be a very short term issue greater composure in attack and defence - patience. I say short term as  this is a totally understandable characteristic of a new squad lacking an early win. Equally the 10 issue is relevant as in Andy Goode we have a 10 from completely the other end of the spectrum from Nicky Robinson - again not at all judgemental, just different. The affect of this however is do not expect the wingers to be bringing home 26 tries this season.

Longer term considerations should be based on performances towards the end of the previous seasons under the existing structures which have now been in place for a third season. Now these will of course be affected by the size and depth of the squad, equally the players lost to the EQP structure and also the affect caused by the overall season fitness which can be maintained by the squad - that is can they go for the full season. Well most of these simply fall into the Mystic Meg box, however what needs to be kept an eye on is the mounting injury list, which has been a consistant factor in the club throughout changes to conditioning and medical staff, and of course whether the squad can maintain energy and power being shown now through to the end of the season. These factors will be more relevant this season due to the fact that we will be playing more of the top of the table teams towards the end of the season. Now the fixture scheduling could be a blessing in disguise as the highest performing clubs will be keen to rest players and indeed will lose players during the second half of the season, hence vulnerable. However there is no point in speculating about if we will be performing well in the second half of the season, picking up wins or not but simply this needs to be monitored and assessed when the second half of the season is completed. The reason I say this is because it is a long term issue and hence a cultural and structural issue, it cannot be changed quickly. At this point there are very good, sound reasons why the second half of the season in the previous two years we have seen winning performances become scarce.

So to summarise. The first 5 games have produced good reward and is a positive achievement for a young and newly assembled squad. The strong likelihood is that the squad will start to understand each other more as the season progresses. The most encouraging aspect this season has been the level of try scoring in each game and not least the variety of players scoring -

follow stats link -

 - hence relieving the pressure on the wingers to score at the level they achieved last season. This is mostly due to having a more competitive pack and an experienced fly half in Andy Goode who provides clear direction and possesses a quality territorial game which will be significant throughout the next tranch of matches through to March. Whilst being excited at the potential of the squad at the start of the season, potential takes time to realise. A league finish around 8th this season to me would be positive with the option of going into the following season with a more stable squad. The continued fitness and availability of Andy Goode is a significant factor in achievement of this objective. Up until the New Year, another 6 premiership matches, a further 9pts at the bottom end or 12pts at the top end would be a good haul and another important achievement for this young and developing squad. Mind set and confidence is everything at this and indeed most levels. With increases in confidence the accuracy and basic errors will disappear. We, as supporters should be letting this young, new squad know clearly that to this point we are very proud of the performance to date and excited with regard to the future potential.

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