Two-try Hughes returns to pre-England form in Worcester victory, while Solomons bemoans Warriors' lack of pressure
A pleasantly sunny day at the Ricoh Arena could have ended up feeling disproportionately dower for Wasps boss Dai Young this afternoon. The prospect of defeat in today’s Midlands derby against Worcester Warriors could have placed Young's side in serious threat of relegation
With fixtures against Exeter (away), Saracens (home), Bath (away) and Harlequins (home) providing comprehensive challenges. Fortunately for the former Welsh and Lions prop, Wasps produced what was arguably a season's best performance in a 28-16 bonus-point victory in front of a 16,000 home crowd earlier today, with a man of the match performance for a seemingly resurgent Nathan Hughes providing the cherry on top of a much-needed win.
First-half scores for Hughes, England Sevens convert Marcus Watson and Georgian prop Zurabi Zhvania were followed up by Hughes' second for the day in the 63rd minute, with one missed penalty all that stood between a 100% record from the boot for All Blacks fly-half Lima Sopoaga. The former Highlanders man nailing four conversions from four in Coventry earlier today, two of which came from challenging touchline angles.
Although for all the work of Sopoaga at standoff, the playmaking influence of Springbok fullback Willie le Roux cannot be underestimated; often playing a larger hand in Wasps’ game-breaking moments than 16-time All Black Sopoaga. Le Roux will be paramount to any shred of hope Wasps harbour of felling league leaders Exeter or Saracens over the next fortnight. But for all le Roux's positive contributions, the nagging question of how, and if, Young can fill the South African-sized playmaking hole in the fifteen jersey next season – with le Roux heading to Japan over the summer – is one of genuine concern.
But next season’s absences of le Roux, Elliot Daly end multiple additional departees are a barrier Wasps can put on the back burner until the summer. For now, the form of two-try Hughes will come as a much needed shot in the arm for Wasps, having been waylaid by international absences, player retirements, injury after injury and a host of further issues over the last two seasons.
The Fijian-born number eight had possibly his best game since he first donned the England jersey three years ago. So often asked to replicate the role of Saracens’ barn-door-kicker-downer Billy Vunipola, Hughes seems to have regained his knack for spotting gaps; as opposed to stiff shoulders. The man set for a role at Ashton Gate for Bristol Bears next season could easily have claimed a hat-trick in Coventry today, turning Worcester defenders inside out on the right wing before being called back for a hint of a knock-on shortly after half-time.
Speaking to The Rugby Magazine following this afternoon's victory, Young admitted that he had given Hughes a “poke in the eye” following his recent underwhelming form.
“He’s had a little bit of a poke in the eye to be quite honest with you, and I think he’s responded,” Young said. “You know, I thought he was excellent today. That’s the Nathan Hughes we all know and love pretty much and he set the standard for his performances for the rest of the season hopefully. “
While Young will have been buoyed by both the performances of Hughes’ as an individual and his team as a collective, the Welshman’s opposite number, Alan Solomons, enjoyed an altogether different afternoon.
Worcester openside flanker Sam Lewis could easily have been confused with Ryan Mills today, such was his multi-layered performance, while once again a complete performance from the Worcester Skipper, Mills, has us all scratching our heads when it comes to his international exclusion. A bright light in an otherwise confused performance from the Worcester collective, Mills was strong in the tackle, swift of both mind and foot in his territorial kicking game and inch-perfect in his playmaking. The former Gloucester man could often be seen unleashing Wales Grand Slam wing Josh Adams down the left touchline before the Welshman succumbed to injury in the 50th minute.
Mentions in defeat must also go to Worcester lock Darren Barry and scrum-half Francois Hougaard. While the former was an immovable pillar in defence, tumbling each of Wasps’ big ball carriers backwards at least once over the 80 minutes, the latter displayed yet another complete performance, denying Wasps and England blindside Brad Shields a breakaway try in the first half. The Springbok scrum-half Hougaard tracked down the former Hurricanes captain from the best part of fifty metres out, forcing a heart-breaking knock-on for Shields just five metres from the Warriors’ line.
Three points are all that separates Worcester and bottom of the table Newcastle, who went down 26-12 at Saracens earlier today, and while Solomons believes his side have it within them to avoid relegation this year, he was keen to highlight Worcester’s lack of cohesion in defeat at the Ricoh.
“We just couldn’t build any pressure,” Solomons told the press post-match. “As I can recollect we had three opportunities inside their own half and they went like that [Solomons clicks his fingers], immediately.
Continuing, Solomons said: “There have been games where we’ve started a bit slowly, and we’ve had to get into the game. We need to rectify that, which we will do.
“If we’d defended better, if we’d done what we were doing in the second half, I don’t believe that they would have got three tries in that first twenty minutes.”
A brave fightback in the final minute could have secured the Warriors a losing bonus point and a four-point cushion above the Falcons, but a knock-on with the clock in the red shut down any such hopes.
Wasps’ win today will stand them in good stead ahead of their gruesome fixture list over the final four games of the season, while Worcester can take some solace in a slightly less daunting calendar. Solomons’ charges will welcome Sale, Gloucester and Saracens to Sixways over the next month, while an away trip to fellow Midlands side Northampton stands as their only remaining game on the road.