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The first game of a new season is always difficult and always daunting. The reason for this is that the well-oiled machine that was running at full throttle at the end of May was put away for three months, earning some welcome rest and to recover from a few bumps and bruises.
When Warren Gatland decided it was time to take the well-oiled machine out of the squad garage and give it a test run, he found that it was missing a few parts, in fact 10 parts in total and all of them vital in keeping this machine running. Upon doing an inventory of the squad, Gatland found that he had lent seven parts of the machine to Mr Woodward, one part to Mr McGeechan, one part to a New Zealand holiday and another to Bronchitis. Therefore, the squad needed new parts to get it up and running and face its first test - the Zurich Challenge.
The machine ran out in sweltering heat with all its new parts and braced itself for the first onslaught of the season &ndash the French Champions, Stade Français. To be fair, Nick Mallett’s side were also heavily affected by players on national duty and he also came here with a young, inexperienced squad. The game would, therefore, prove what depth the sides had, and for Gatland, he needed to see a few things. The first would be how his five new pre-season signings would fare. The second would be who of last season’s U21 players would be ready for first-team action and thirdly, if Alex King goes to the World Cup, how would Mark Van Gisbergen control the game in the number 10 shirt?
Van Gisbergen got the game underway and it didn’t take long before the first points would be scored. Wasps were caught offside defending the first attacking move from Stade Français and flyhalf, David Skrela, put the first points on the board.
Moments later Van Gisbergen would be tested with his first two penalty kicks of the day. The first was a relatively easy one with the second a long range effort from almost the halfway line. The New Zealander made no mistake and allowed Wasps to take a 6-3 lead.
The first try of the game came in the 19th minute and if one had to be diplomatic, it should have come from the French side. An attacking opportunity that saw the Wasps defence stretched to its limit almost saw them cross the whitewash. However, try-saving tackles from Ayoola Erinle and captain of the day, Phil Greening, kept the French side at bay. Stade recycled the ball again and it was sent down the backline. However an intercept from new signing, Peter Richards, saw the scrumhalf gallop about 90m and score his first try for Wasps and the team’s first of the season. Van Gisbergen was on target again and Wasps led 13-3.
Skrela narrowed the gap to 13-6 in the 26th minute after another penalty.
Another new signing on display was fullback, Tom Voyce. The former Bath and England international was tested throughout the game with high balls and in defence. In fact Voyce seemed so relaxed and comfortable in attack and defence, it was no surprise Wasps’ second try was created by him. The ball was made available to Voyce from a ruck, which saw him weave his magic between the Stade tackles. He then made the ball available again once he was tackled, only to have it returned. He then laid it off to Van Gisbergen, who scored the try. It was the flyhalf’s try, but the fullback created it, and with the extra two points from the conversion, Wasps opened a healthy 20-6 lead going into half time.
Mallett knew his side was in trouble and must have given them a wake-up call during the break, as his side came out guns blazing at the start of the second half. A third penalty from Skrela made it 20-9.
Fraser Waters took to the field in the 54th minute after Erinle took a knock to the ankle, which saw him limp off the field. Moments later Gatland brought on the experience of Paul Volley and Peter Scrivener for Jonny O’Connor and Mark Lock respectively.
However, Stade kept on coming and were rewarded with a try in the 58th minute, courtesy of Franck Comba. The little centre jinxed his way around the Wasps’ defence, found some space and scored under the posts. Skrela added the conversion and Mallett’s men were back in business at 20-16. However when Skrela landed a drop goal from in front of the post to close to gap to one point, the question was asked could Wasps hang on?
At 20-19 ahead, Gatland brought on more replacements. Tom French made his first- team debut replacing Sean Phillips, who is on loan from London Welsh while Dowd and Green are away. Jonny Barrett replaced Greening at hooker and George Skivington come on for Martin Purdy at lock.
Skivington’s impact was immediate as at two metres tall and with a fresh pair of legs, the youngster charged down a Skrela clearance and used his skills and weight to collect and barge his way across the tryline with literally his first touch of the ball. A great way to start your season coming into the first team. Van Gisbergen added the two extra points and the scoreboard read 27-19.
Peter Richards made way for Harvey Biljon in the 76th-minute and received loud applause from the crowd. Stepping into Rob Howley’s position is no easy task but this new signing seemed to do it with ease and will challenge Howley for the number nine shirt throughout the season.
Stade fought on and when replacement Gregory Mahé scored his side’s second try, the home crowd were left on the edge of their seats. Skrela converted from the touchline and Wasps were left to hang on at 27-26. Voyce left the field with a cut to his head and after using all the replacements Wasps held on with 14 men to secure the Zurich Challenge title.
It was Wasps’ third trophy in three months and will go nicely alongside the Zurich Championship and Parker Pen Challenge Cup trophies.
Voyce was named man of the match for his outstanding performance but it could have also easily gone to Richards or Van Gisbergen.
Gatland said, “ I’m more pleased with the result than the performance, winning is a good habit to get into. We have now found the art of winning. The result will give us confidence as only two of our players out there took part in last season’s Zurich Premiership final.
In all, it was a satisfying way to start the season and get the machine up and running again.