Grrrrr…It felt like leaving a football match. Heading down the steps to the exit at the final whistle we were shouted at by several home fans (who in fairness, were old enough to know better!) with jibes about how they had just beaten us and finished top of the league. “Have fun in Exeter” they mocked. Smug. Teasing. Taunting. Ridiculing. I’ve been there so many times on the football terraces; giving and taking in fairness.
“Going to Edinburgh first mate” I smirked back. BOOM! Take that. “Enjoy your weekend off” Smug. Conceited. I wasn’t proud of myself…but hey, what is sport without a bit of banter!
Sunday’s trip to the Ricoh Arena marked the end of the regular season as a massive crowd of 30,000 watched Wasps beat Saracens. That result meant Wasps finished top of the league, securing the bonus point they needed to ensure a play-off semi-final at home to Leicester. The defeat for Sarries means a much tougher semi-final, away to Exeter.
I have mixed feelings about the defeat. Not really that bothered about the fact that Wasps won the match. The reality is that Saracens put out very much a weakened side for the game, knowing that they were already in the play-offs, and very much aware that next weekend there is the potentially history-making European Champions Cup Final to think about (whilst Wasps have a rest week). A home play-off semi-final would have been nice – for the bank account if nothing else – but we would have been absolutely gutted if any key players had picked up an injury in this game (where no trophies were won, or lost).
You could argue that a home semi-final was sacrificed (gambled a better word?) in order to maximise the chances of beating Clermont next week and being crowned European Champions for a second successive year. And for sure, if we are drinking our beer and waving our flags in celebration around Princes Street Gardens next weekend, then nobody will really care about the Wasps defeat. But to say the game was sacrificed is disrespectful to those players that did, sometimes heroically, wear the red of Saracens on the day; and the match itself was not as one-sided as the 35-15 scoreline suggests.
At the end of the day, we went into the fixture knowing that there was a maximum of four games remaining this season; and there was only one of them that we could afford to lose and still retain the Premiership and European Double. That was Wasps away. And we lost it. Playing the odds, taking risks, self-belief, backing yourself to be able to beat anyone, anywhere, on your day…However you describe it, only the next 2-3 weeks will confirm if it backfires or transpires into absolute genius on behalf of Director of Rugby, Mark McCall.
The upshot is that we now face a long trip to Exeter next weekend (and by that I do mean “we” – After all we have been through this season, not going really isn’t an option…Mrs C gets that). After Dublin and Edinburgh it is a lot more expense than I would have wanted, but on the plus side, Exeter is one of the away grounds my son and I have not yet done on our travels, and one that comes highly recommended! He’s growing up fast, 13 now, my theory, genuinely, is that with Saracens we are creating lifetime memories that we will both treasure for a lifetime. Money can’t buy that.
Back at the Ricoh, the bumper crowd created a fantastic atmosphere and from a Wasps perspective there can be no doubting that the move up to Coventry has been a good thing for the club (and with my Chesham United hat on, who wants to play at the home of Wycombe Wanderers??!!).
The stadium is impressive, and when pretty much full, can create an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams; particularly as the home side run out to a hideous buzzing noise that rebounds off all four sides of the ground at a disturbingly high volume that agitates, getting beneath the skin. As you await the yellow and black players to emerge from the tunnel you almost feel yourself wanting to start swatting the pests away from in front of your face. As an away fan it is bloody awful. If I was a Wasps fan? I’d love it.
With the scene set, fire and smoke accompanying the horrible buzzing noise, by the time the game kicks off you soon forget that, in reality, the outcome of the game is not the be all and end all of the season. It feels like a cup final, especially when you add to that an impressive gathering of Sarries fans grouped high up behind the posts, creating enough noise to make their presence felt.
The group booking came about through Sarries on Tour who booked something like 265 seats to enable fans to sit together and create some atmosphere to encourage the away side…A far cry from our experience in Dublin where in our block Ben was often on his own trying to out-sing the Munster fans (undeterred I must add).
Being the last game of the season, all matches in the Premiership were kicking off at the same time….Except ours.
About ten minutes before the scheduled 4.00pm kick-off it was announced over the tannoy that kick-off will be delayed for 15 minutes because there “are still thousands of people outside” queuing to get in through the turnstiles. Now this little delay has caused all sorts of debate and bickering on forums with various conspiracy theories banded around as to how Wasps did this deliberately to gain an advantage (if they know how Exeter are getting on in their game, they know what is required to finish top of the league). All complete tosh if you ask me.
However, there was something a little bizarre about it. These “thousands of people” still outside? Surely that is nothing but complete nonsense as by the time kick-off came around at 4.15pm there was hardly any more people in the ground than there were twenty minutes earlier? Something not right there, surely?
I don’t buy into any of these conspiracy theories, Wasps would have gone for the bonus point win whatever; and probably got it. However, the football fan in me did notice that the area of the ground that did increase in popularity between 4.00pm and 4.15pm was the area that those of us familiar with the round ball game call the “prawn sandwich brigade”. Yes, was it just me, but were it not only the corporate boxes that were in danger of missing the big KO?
My own theory was backed up by the (very friendly, it must be said) Wasp fan sat in front of us who made the same observation and pointed out that he had been in the hospitality for the last home game and mentioned that the main courses were only dished up very close to kick-off, making it a rush to see the start of the game…I don’t know, not spreading rumours, just saying!
The match kicked off at 4.15pm and, you know what, it was a bloody good game, certainly the first-half anyway. Every time Wasps scored, we seemed to strike back as the balance of power swung from one side to the other. In truth you always felt that the strength of the home side would ultimately win it. Coupled with wearing the rose-tinted glasses that projected a view of the referee getting a couple of big calls wrong, it all felt rather inevitable.
Still the Sarries fans made noise, despite being so heavily outnumbered…and the game slipping away. It didn’t feel like the “throw-away” game that team selection suggested (I know that sounds disrespectful, but can’t think of a better phrase for it!). Credit to Wasps, it was a fantastic atmosphere in an impressive stadium.
My real hope was that we could have stopped them getting four tries which would have meant they finished second and we would have had to return to the Ricoh in a fortnight for a re-match, in the play-off semi-final with Owen Farrell back.. Oh, and Billy Vunipola. And Mako. That’s not to mention the legend of Maro Itoje. Chris Ashton; almost forgot he was missing. And Alex Goode. Then there is Richard Wigglesworth who has been just awesome recently. Nearly forgot, the captain, Brad Barritt. Oh yes, I would have loved to have gone back there in a fortnight!
As it is, they got the bonus point and we have a trip to Exeter in a fortnight. Wasps get a home tie against Leicester and must be huge favourites to book their place at Twickenham at the end of the month. Our trip to Exeter is going to be incredibly tough, but we can’t think about that yet, we have the small matter of the Champions Cup final this coming weekend to concentrate on.
I think it is safe to say that Ben and I have passed the point of no return when it comes to being sucked in by the Saracens family. This year, again, has created so many magical moments. It will take something special to match the first game in the Champions Cup qualifying, the away trip to Toulon. That was special. If you could bottle that sun-soaked hour or so at the Toulon supporters bar before kick-off, perched on a roundabout between the Mediterranean Sea and the Stade Mayol ground, it would be on the top shelf labelled ‘vintage’.
It was truly magical. The setting was perfect, the occasion was special and the objective was to reach another Champions Cup final. Now, six months on, it is mission accomplished, making the Toulon trip even more special in the memory. But the job is not yet finished, the thought of winning the trophy again causes a tingle that goes up and down the whole body. As a child might say: I can’t wait.