Wasps have been challenged to launch a new dynasty of European success when they face Toulon in their Champions Cup quarter-final today.
Mission impossible confronts the Premiership underdogs on the Cote d’Azur where the star-studded champions are plotting their route to an unprecedented third successive title.
Losing wings Christian Wade and Sailosi Tagicakibau to hamstring injuries and powerful number eight Nathan Hughes to suspension has only heightened the sense that Wasps’ return to the knockout stages will end in France.
But director of rugby Dai Young insists they are capable of stunning Toulon, evoking the club’s European glory days of last decade while declaring it is time for the new generation to leave their calling card on the continent.
4. Wasps have genuine chance in Toulon as French side have no goalkicker. @ChampionsCup. This could be the game that launches Elliot Daly.
— Will Greenwood (@WillGreenwood) April 3, 2015
“We’re very proud and respectful for the club’s history and tradition, but we have a determined group now who want to start making their own mark,” Young said.
“We want people to be talking about this Wasps team rather than referring back to the other guys all the time. No one expected us to get out of the group, so in a lot of people’s eyes this is a shot to nothing.”
Captain James Haskell, who returns to the back row after being rested against Northampton last weekend, insists Wasps are in familiar territory.
He said: “We are underdogs against Toulon because of their pedigree, but I firmly believe we have the ability to get a result down there.”
Today’s second quarter-final sees last season’s runners-up Saracens visit Racing Metro with scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth leading the team in the injury enforced absence of lock Alistair Hargreaves, partnering Charlie Hodgson at half-back.
Saracens are unbeaten in their last five matches and have only lost one game in their last nine. Their French opponents were the only unbeaten club in the pool stages, coming out of their group with Northampton Saints, the Ospreys and Benetton Treviso with 24 points thanks to five wins and just one draw.
“We are in very good spirits,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall. “We have watched Racing a lot over the last week, especially their win at Franklin’s Gardens, and they were very good that day.”
Bath boss Mike Ford insisted he did not want “a sympathy vote” for his team after their European Champions Cup campaign ended with a tense quarter-final exit against Leinster in Dublin yesterday.
Centre Ian Madigan booted Bath out of Europe as his six successful penalties condemned them to an 18-15 defeat, although the visitors claimed touchdowns by England fly-half George Ford and captain Stuart Hooper.
George Ford, back at the Aviva Stadium just five weeks after being part of an England team beaten during Ireland’s march to the Six Nations title, scored a brilliant solo try and also made a break that ended with Hooper breaching Leinster’s defence, while he kicked a conversion and late penalty as Bath pressed.
Bit tighter in the end than they would have liked but another semi final for Leinster. Well done lads. #nottheworstpoorseasonisit
— Brian O’Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) April 4, 2015
But Bath ultimately gave Madigan too many chances to punish them and he delivered a 100 per cent success-rate to book Leinster a semi-final appointment with either Toulon or Wasps, who meet on the Mediterranean coast today.
“Make no mistake, we don’t want any sympathy vote here. We should have won that game today,” head coach Mike Ford said. “There is a lot of disappointment. The first-half performance, especially, we are a lot better than that.
“We made quite a few line-breaks, but there is more than one way to win a game. It is not just about scoring tries. They kicked their penalties and fair play to them. That last 10-15 minutes, I was convinced we were going to win the game, but it’s small margins.”
George Ford reflected the sense of disappointment permeating Bath’s camp after they failed to secure a first top-flight European semi-final appearance since 2006.
“Irish teams are very good at squeezing teams and milking penalties and building a score that way,” he said. “We should have handled that better than we did.
“We wanted to play with a good tempo so we could make linebreaks and be a threat in attack. Ultimately, we need to start getting better at taking these chances.”
Northampton completed a chastening day for English clubs in the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup after being put to the sword by Clermont at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Just hours after Bath had succumbed to Leinster in Dublin, the reigning Aviva Premiership champions and runaway league leaders leaked four tries to their dazzling opponents who had amassed a 27-0 lead by half-time.
Wing Noa Nakaitaci plundered a pair of touch downs, while his France team-mate Wesley Fofana and former Bath full-back Nick Abendanon also crossed in a harrowing evening for England’s strongest club.
“In all fairness everything worked for us in the first half,” said Clermont hooker Benjamin Kayser. “It was a great performance and great preparation, we’re happy to be in the semi-finals.”
Just finished watching Clermont. Jaysus! That’s another level that even Toulon would struggle to stay with.
— Brian O’Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) April 4, 2015
Northampton skipper Dylan Hartley was blunt in his assessment.
“We got caught cold, and the blue-and-gold steamroller went and kept going,” Hartley told Sky Sports. “We didn’t get a foothold in the game at any stage.”
It took until the 68th minute for Northampton to register their first points through a try by Alex Waller, although the aftermath of the score was mired in controversy as the substitute prop then appeared to land a blow on John Ulugia as they wrestled on the floor.
Saints’ quarter-final preparations were hit by the loss of George North to concussion, but the presence of their giant Wales wing would have had little impact on a match dictated by Clermont’s brutish pack and lit up by the ingenuity of their backs.
Northampton fly-half Stephen Myler invited pressure at the start with a poor clearance and Clermont broke from the ensuing attacking line-out, number eight Fritz Lee punching the hole before offloading to Fofana.
The opportunity appeared to have been ruined when Nakaitaci spurned a three-on-one overlap, but the slippery France wing cut back inside to force his way through a wall of defenders.
It was all too easy for Clermont as the outstanding Abendanon glided through heavy traffic before feeding Fofana, who once again caused mayhem in the Saints defence.
White shirts were queuing up to complete the run in when the ball was spun right and it was Nakaitaci who strolled over for his second.
Any hopes of Northampton staging a comeback ended a minute before the interval when Abendanon cast his magic once more before finding the equally bewitching Fofana on hand to finish the move.
Worse was to come, however, as their most promising spell of the match that signposted an imminent try was brought to a halt when centre George Pisi dropped the ball in contact and Abendanon plucked it up before running almost the length of the pitch to score.
Clermont captain Damien Chouly was sin-binned for interfering at the breakdown and with a man down it took a forceful try-saving tackle from Abendanon to stop Saints from scoring from one move.
Gaps still appeared in the Top 14 club’s defence, however, and Waller strolled over, before taking exception to Ulugia falling on him in the act of scoring and retaliating.