Back into the Stoop they came, some two thousand of them in all, masks on, flags fluttering as cool May showers blew through. After the long months of winter locked away, and in one of rugby’s great parishes, the parishioners were permitted for a most important occasion indeed. With a European final to come later in the cathedral across the Chertsey Road, and the streets of Twickenham alive again, to the chapel for a lunchtime assembly: a place in the Premier 15s final to be secured.
It was in bands of black and yellow that many of that 2000 came, Wasps fans outnumbering those quartered or in home colours, not far from their own West London home. Just two points separated the second and third placed Premier 15s finishers in the regular season, and Wasps scored more points. If a new finalist was to be found for this young competition in this strange season, the team that has embraced the law adaptations best might just have the spark and the skill to break the duopoly.
It was not to be. The last hymn was a familiar one, a song sheet from which the choir had sung before: into the final for another encounter with Saracens muscled a composed, clinical Harlequins behind two fine tries from Jess Breach.
How that hymn might have been different had Wasps not been struck by injuries at this most inopportune moment. The tempo to their season has been set by a pair of brilliant half-backs, Claudia MacDonald’s sharp, swiftly developing skills at scrum-half dovetailing with Meg Jones’ adventurous stylings at fly-half. Together the duo that have unlocked a backline packed with strike runners, Giselle Mather’s side embracing the adapted law variations better than any other outfit to establish themselves as one of the league’s best three teams.
To therefore have to be without their first choice half-backs for this game due to injury was a blow felt keenly. To lose one of the pair would have toughened the task significantly; to play without either was to strip this clock of the two cogs that make it tick. Wasps were particularly disappointed that Jones, perhaps the standout player of the Premier 15s season, could not be risked after picking up a knock with GB Sevens.
The international class of a pair of Red Roses was missed. Harlequins’ own half-backs were in control throughout, afforded time by the ascendancy of their forwards and using the ball smartly, with little fuss. The ability of Leanne Riley to hit the corners with a string of perfectly guided diagonal box kicks enable Harlequins to gain territory; Wasps’ set-piece woes allowed further consolidation. By half-time the lead had swelled to 18, a margin which proved to be unassailable.
After a first half of precious little in the way of inviting attacking opportunity, Wasps had the better of much of the second half. In Jones’ stead at fly-half, Williams grew into the game nicely, after a first half in which she saw little stable ball due to a misfiring lineout and Harlequins’ breakdown spoiling able to pick her runners and cause problems. The impact of Claire Molloy and others from the bench suggested with another ten minutes Wasps might have edged closer still; Maud Muir’s excellence around the park showed why England are so keen on the young front-rower.
Beyond the missing half-backs, an absence of available centres forced Mather to shift Abi Burton to 13, who carried well in reasonably limited touches, but whose explosive power and speed might have been more impactful, and perhaps necessary, in tighter confines from her usual back row home as Wasps struggled to combat Harlequins’ power advantage. The untidiness of the lineout and breakdown meant the opportunities that allowed Kate Alder and Abby Dow particularly to threaten were largely fleeting.
But it was the missing Jones and MacDonald that left Wasps short of the stardust a hard-fought contest at times required. For Mather’s side a disappointing third successive tumble at this same penultimate hurdle. Having animated the league so this year, they will enter next season well built to come again, some summer turnover in the squad anticipated, but with the key protagonists largely remaining in place to confront a more conventional law book and schedule next time around. But as the seasons change and spring finally gives way to summer, Wasps may just ponder what might have been.