Match Report: Wasps 23-20 Bristol Bears

Jack Willis played for England last weekend
©PA

Well, that was quite the return to Premiership action for Wasps and Bristol.

It was a first-half display that offered little of the heart-stopping action experienced at the end of the second period.

First Half

In honesty, the first-half made the game very much feel like the opening match of a new season. Each side seemed almost tentative as they worked one another out, finding out their limits. 

Bristol would strike first after good early pressure in Wasps’ half. They penned the hosts deep within their own region and the Bears were able to regain possession at nearly every time of asking thanks to defensive pressure that forced clearance kicks and good field position.

Sam Bedlow struck over a penalty for the visitors and it would take 11 minutes until Wasps drew blood thanks to a Jimmy Gopperth penalty in front of the posts after the home side had finally found their footing. 

Some 14 minutes later, the New Zealander would give Wasps the lead after another spell of dominance. The half would end with that three-point advantage to Lee Blackett's men, leaving it all to play for in the second period.

Second Half

Wasps started the second 40 strongly with Gopperth stroking the ball over to create a six-point gap between the two sides, but that lead was promptly taken away from the home team after Bristol found some momentum. 

Driving forwards again and again, the Bears were awarded a penalty as Wasps proved a little too eager at the ruck, having already been reduced to 14 men thanks to Juan de Jongh’s yellow card. 

As bodies were still picking themselves up, former Hartpury scrum-half Harry Randall did a quick tap-and-go and placed the ball down next to the ruck that was still untangling itself. With the try awarded, Bedlow would convert the score to take Bristol in front again.

Each of the side’s kickers would then miss subsequent penalties, but Bedlow was able to hit the target shortly after as the visitors extended their lead to four points.

At this stage, it had become a shootout between the two teams and scoring tries seemed like the only option if we were to find a winner.

And one week on from his try-scoring England debut at Twickenham, Jack Willis found himself at the bottom of a pile with the ball over the whitewash. After consultation with the TMO, the try was awarded and Wasps had a three-point lead thanks to Gopperth’s conversion.

In true shootout style, there would more twists and turns with Bristol taking the lead. Consistent pressure dragged Wasps defenders in and they failed to stop Siale Piutau from diving over against his old club. The conversion a simple one for Bedlow.

As much as Bristol clearly wanted to beat the team that vanquished them in the Premiership semi-final last season, Wasps’ quality shone through as they claimed the victory following tidy work from Josh Bassett who set the platform for Tom Willis to trot in beneath the sticks. 

Gopperth converted and despite a last-ditch attacking set from Bristol, Wasps would win the game 23-20.

Joe Harvey’s thoughts…

Whilst the first half was nothing to write home about, the second half offered everything. The sides had only played one another some six weekends ago but took a while to warm-up to one another at the Ricoh.

Each team were guilty of giving the other possession on a regular basis and the game became static as a result, but when there was a spell of pressure, points would come.

Wasps were buoyed by the return of their England stars not considered for selection yesterday afternoon. A day on from watching their Lensbury camp mates overcome Ireland in the capital, they would prove to be the difference in the West Midlands.

Jack Willis would score an influential try in the game, but in defence, he was as monstrous as ever. His collisions erred on the side of dominant each time he put a shoulder in. Added to this, he started his campaign with four turnovers, making that five in the last two weekends.

Jacob Umaga was as metronomic as ever, his boot always putting Wasps into an attacking position and offering them an opportunity to pressure the Bears defence.

As for Bristol, they were clearly missing their experienced players. Pat Lam outlined earlier in the week how many individuals were missing for the Bears whether that was due to injury or international selection.

Callum Sheedy and Ioan Lloyd were representing Wales last night, as Kyle Sinckler, Ben Earl and Max Malins were playing for England. Semi Radradra is in a Fiji camp, seemingly destined not to play any rugby, whilst All Black full-back Charles Piutau is still injured.

It is an eye-watering list and whilst the side that lined up today in Coventry performed well and were close to victory, it was the ability to bring more high-quality experience off the bench that proved vital in Wasps’ win.

Starting XVs

Wasps: Sopoaga; Kibirige, De Jongh, Gopperth, Bassett; Umaga, Vellacott; McIntyre, Taylor, Brookes, Cardall, Gaskell, Willis, Young (c), Shields

Replacements: Cruse, West, Toomaga-Allen, Douglas, Barbeary, Willis, Wolstenholme, Odogwu

Bristol Bears: O'Conor; Adeolokun, Leiua, S Piutau (c), Purdy; Bedlow, Randall; Thomas, Byrne, Afoa, Holmes, Joyce, Vui, Thomas, Heenan.

Replacements: Capon, Woolmore, Armstrong, Hawkins, Dun, Kessell, Wilstead, Fricker.

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