rad Shields is speaking on the day the Wasps squad is tested for Covid-19. The England flanker is asked if, following the experience of Sale earlier this month when their play-off hopes disappeared in the laboratory, he and his teammates are worried about a similar outbreak before next Saturday’s Premiership final against Exeter at Twickenham.
“Testing day and the one after are nerve-racking in case anything comes up,” says the New Zealand-born back-rower. “You go through phases [of worrying], but we are fortunate that we have two weeks to see where we go. Sale showed things can change quickly. You do not think too much about it when you are training, but outside the club you have to be wary of it. It is something that is real.”
Less than 24 hours later, Wasps sent their players home and suspended training after four players, none regulars in the first-team squad, tested positive for Covid-19, along with three members of staff. A private round of tests was arranged for Saturday, before the weekly arrangement on Tuesday, leaving the players and coaches with an anxious wait as they prepare for one of the biggest days in some of their careers. More positive tests could lead to Bristol replacing Wasps, with there being no time in the schedule for the final to be rearranged.
“We have put in a lot of hard work to get to the final,” says Shields, who joined Wasps in 2017, after they had narrowly lost the Premiership final to Exeter, from the Wellington-based Hurricanes. “We have not had much success in the last 12 years and that is burning in the background. It is time to bring something home to the club. We are building a winning culture here and the outcome takes care of itself if you play well.”
The notion of Wasps appearing in the final was fanciful in February after they managed to lose at Leicester and parted company with their long-serving director of rugby, Dai Young. Lee Blackett, who had been attack and backs coach, took charge as head coach, initially on a temporary basis, and three bonus-point victories followed before the country went into lockdown.
Wasps resumed where they left off, winning eight of their last nine matches in the regular season, six with bonus points, to finish second in the Premiership, three points behind Exeter. Their one defeat, at home to Sale when they were thwarted at the breakdown, an area of the game where they excel through Jack Willis, Shields, Thomas Young and Joe Launchbury, will be a salutary warning about what lies ahead against the masters of forward domination.
When you string some wins together you gain confidence and hunger
“You can only look forward to a match like this,” says Shields. “We have to do our best to stop them getting into our 22 because they are lethal when they get to that part of the pitch. We know they will be tough to stop and you have to push the law a bit [at the breakdown] and play right on the edge. We have been pretty decent in that area lately and while you might give away a penalty, as long as you are not stuck on the back foot and painting bad pictures, referees will let things go a bit.”
Wasps’ resurgence from a side scrapping to avoid the ignominy of being dubbed the club that would have been relegated but for Saracens’ disgrace means they will be markedly different from the side that lost 38-3 to Exeter at Sandy Park in November. Unlike others, their squad has not been fortified by new recruits since lockdown. Their away form has been impressive, winning at Saracens, Bristol, Bath and Harlequins, and they won at Exeter last season in a match played outside the international window.
“We have been chipping away for a while,” says Shields. “We produced some good performances last season but it is about being consistent. We started to get our combinations right and it makes a massive difference when you string some wins together. You gain confidence and hunger. We came to understand we were a good team and are playing with more expression. We have always been an attacking team, but our defence has come on and that defines your character. It was just a matter of time before it clicked and we are playing without pressure.”