Tuesday, 1 July 2014

2014/15 Season Preview

On the back of a fantastic end to last season we can look forward to season 2014/15 with great expectation. Back into the top level European Competition and thank goodness we have dropped the London tag, simply Wasps again. Currently we now sit alphabetically bottom but effectively joint top. The season can't start soon enough. Just need to reinstate the Hoops in Black and Old Gold, shirts that stand out in a crowd. This would make me for one very happy. Last season was pretty much an even playing field although we did not have the benefit of full recruitment opportunities. As we enter the new season we now have a club with greater stability, are once again an attractive option for high level ambitious players and can benefit once again from full recruitment options, although, this window may not be open for long so we need to act now.

Targets for the season have been announced by Dai Young, a 6th placed finish being the minimum requirement.  Also towards the end of last season the coaching staff highlighted a need for a 30% improvement. Indeed this level of improvement based on the numbers would provide the 6th placed finish as required. But what specifically needs to improve and and is it acheivable ?

Already highlighted many times is the need for performance consistency, greater accuracy and discipline in order to turn around many of the close run matches from last season. Home results and an improvement in the Feb onwards Premiership form will be further indicators of progress. Recruitment has been well reported with 13 players or so leaving and 12 ish new players arriving. Certainly the quality of the recruitment to date looks to provide much needed depth to the squad, genuine options with the staring XV and this should indeed lead to greater performance consistency. However, the depth is a bit uneven and some positions look still exposed. With many intangibles likely to affect all clubs as the season progresses I feel we still to keep fingers crossed to try and avoid some possible events. As yet it is not clear how the Feb onwards results schedule will be improved, we will just have to wait and see. Changes to training regimes, not too much time on their feet during the week, extra 2nd XV fixtures to keep the whole squad in shape ready to step up if and when required and greater strength in squad depth may prove to be answer to the Feb slump. Massive changes to the conditioning team has occurred but personnel was not really the issue, in fact most have moved on from the club to international level service. It is the amount of time players spend on their feet during the week and lack of match programming for wider squad players which I think need to be addressed.

The first 6 fixtures will provide some indication as to how the season will progress. The first 6 fixtures provide a strong challenge. Last season the return on these opening 6 fixtures was 13pts. So a 30% improvement equates to a haul of 17pts which would be very welcome. However, the opposition in these first 6 fixtures has changed, based on the League position finish last season of our first 6 opponents the challenge looks much tougher. Like for like against these teams, based on last seasons results, we would have achieved a total of only 9pts, with the added 30% performance increase that equates to some 12pts from the first 6 games. Now that does not look too great and would result in a League position of about 9th/10th after 6 games. Point is as Wasps supporters we have a tough opening batch of fixtures and will need to hold back on the expectation and be patient. Anything in single figures and we should be concerned about achieving a 6th placed finished, anything north of 12pts we should have a satisfied, confident grin.

We had an outstanding finish to last season with the Euro play offs but this needs to be put into perspective. Our Prem home record reads won 5 from 11 (inc The Stinger) and the Feb onwards form was won 3 from 10. The key benefit of this end of season performance is for the longer term future and not necessarily next season (2014/15). We certainly need to back up that performance with a top six finish, however recruitment with an eye on season 2015/16 is the main benefit and we need now to maximise the advantage. At this point we are now a much more attractive proposition for experienced quality players. In my experience the pounds shillings and pence are obvisously important to players however to the highest level players, playing in the top competitions is also a high, if not higher, priority. Now we could wait and let the season unfold or we can make hay whilst the sun shines and start signing players now. That is current squad players extensions and new players, ready for season 2015/16 and beyond. Most importantly any recruitment needs to be geared to the playing style direction the coaching staff are taking the squad and hence they need to be briefed on the current progress with securing a ground the key issue being the likely playing diamentions of the new pitch and building a squad to suit.

At present we should assume this communication is taking place and a new ground would come with a pitch of maximum size dimensions, a jointly shared rugby/soccer stadium may not provide the width we need to benefit from the pace and mobility within the squad. The main strength of the current Wasps squad, what has really saved the day for Wasps, is the exceptional pace and individual brilliance within the squad. It is no great surprise that Wasps perform/compete much better on wider pitches in good conditions. Adams Park is narrower than the maximum permitted, our home form is poor and our away form at certain venues is very good, Twickenham being one example. Basically the squad strengths are not being complimented by the Adams Park pitch, but it is the long term we need to build for not just this coming season, the long term offers a different pitch option.

11 of the Prem matches are at home (LDH permitted), playing in an environment which compliments our strengths or adjusting the squad to suit, seems to make sense to me. Indeed when we played at Loftus Road with a narrow pitch the playing patterns and recruitment was designed with this very much to the fore. The pattern was flexible with the ability to be effective on the wider surfaces, however a narrow pitch was not a disadvantage to us but was mostly to visiting teams. The move to Adams Park fitted perfectly with the squad strengths and although playing patterns changed when Warren Gatland took charge introducing Gatlandball and also the rush defensive system introduced by Shuan Edwards both these systems very much complimented the playing pitch diamentions and the strengths of the squad. Nowadays there are more fixtures played on maximum width pitches, but we currently suffer with half our games played on a pitch which does not fully compliment our squad strengths. Our playing systems are also a little unclear, seemingly centred around a forward dominated, safety first approach, which does change within games when the need arises to a more risk orientated approach. However this more risk orientated, catch up rugby style approach has produced our most successful periods throughout the season, albeit usually when chasing a game. This has resulted in a important gain in terms of losing bonus point tally. Greater commitment to bring the pace we have into the game earlier, albeit on a narrower pitch, may well be an answer short term/long term to a more competitive consistant performance and help to improve the overall handling, passing accuracy - (match) practice makes perfect.

So getting back to the need now to recruit for the longer term future, in particular we need a Fly Half of International status to take us forward if we are to be serious contenders for top 6, top 4. Andy Goode has contributed massively to the current success of Wasps this past season and will again provide excellent direction this coming season. However his natural game does not bring the outside channel into play as a major threat enough through distribution, although this is compensated for to some degree via his vision and ability to kick accurate cross field type kicks to stretch defences. However the key point is Andy will not go on forever, hence a Fly Half with the ability to manage the game, make best use of the pace available out wide and distribute effectively is a key requirement and should be addressed now whilst we are in a position to attract the very best. It may well be the recent recruitments of Jackson and Lozowski provide the answer however that is yet to be seen. The fact is we now have a squad pretty much capable of winning the League with the exception of a current World Class fly half, which all teams above us do possess. Teams that win the throphies all have top class 10's.

Further to this we have pretty much all in place with a mobile, skilful squad of players with great pace throughout. The front line additions to the squad with Gaskell, Miller and Leiua fit perfectly with overall strengths of the current squad and I'm sure other new recruits will as the season progresses provide great competition and real options for the selectors. An addition of another top level scrum half to compete with Joe Simpson (and keep him fresh) with pace and threat along with another inside centre with the ability to truck it up and off load/present momentum ball quickly would also be on my initial want list.

Off the field many changes have taken place. However the only effective, significant change will be ownership of a stadium or definite news of this objective. The Stinger was a big success in terms of a great event, a great day out and demonstrated the potential of the club, even though it was a financial loss falling about 15,000 short in terms of attendance for break even, it did however provide a massive boost and injection of confidence into the Club. The short and long term future of the club is currently still very much dependent on a generous club owner and will remain this way until a stadium is in place. A top 6th finish and with it inclusion in the top level European competition has significant financial implications. Rising the average attendance at Adams Park this season will of course be very welcome but filling the stadium every week will only just about balance the books. We need the ability to run conference events, gain more from food and drink sales and turn the Stadium into a major income source 7 days and week throughout the year.

In summary, on the field, we now have momentum and need to maintain this. A 6th placed and above finish is achievable with the assembled squad. It will not be a gimme, the first six fixtures provide a real challenge. The squad additions should provide the consistency we require. The accuracy required will only come from playing outside our comfort zone and challenging our skill sets in a match environment on a regular basis. We need to understand better the playing environment and play appropriate patterns to suit. I think just about every player, coach, supporter understood the advantages playing towards the clubhouse at Sudbury. Adams Park has more subtle characteristics and playing patterns need tweaking to maximise performance. On the field confidence is everything in sport and I believe the confidence gained from the Stinger and at the end of last season will be evident at the start of this season and carry us through the first 6 fixtures with a 12pt return. This will provide the base to go on to achieve a 6th placed finish. Just need a strong start to the season.

Season Predictions - 

Saracens - Top 4
Northampton - Top 4
Leicester - Top 4
Bath - 4th to 6th
Harlequins - 4th to 7th
Sale - 6th to 9th
Wasps - 6th to 9th
Gloucester 6th to 9th
Exeter 8th to 10th
London Irish 8th to 10th
Newcastle 11th or 12th
London Welsh 11th or 12th

Pitch sizes from Premiership Rugby - 

Bath: 100m x 68.5m, 5 m in goals.

Exeter: 100 m x 69m, 14 m in goals.

Gloucester: 97m x 70 m, 7.5m in goals.

Harlequins: 100m x 65m, 8m in goals.

Leicester: 89m x 64.5m (post to post).

London Irish: 94m x 68m, 5.5m in goals.

London Wasps: 94m x 68.5, 5m in goals.

London Welsh: 98m x 70m, 10m in goals.

Northampton: 100m x 70m, 8m in goals.

Sale: 100m x 67m, 6.5m in goals.

Saracens: 96m x 68m, 5m in goals.

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