The Wasps head coach, Lee Blackett, has urged his side to make the most of their Premiership final reprieve against Exeter on Saturday after lifting the lid on the emotional strain of the Covid-19 outbreak that threatened their place at Twickenham.
Blackett revealed that while he is without 11 players for the final because of either positive tests or close contacts having to isolate, only four of those have been involved in the past four matches. It is believed that while Malakai Fekitoa will miss out with a groin injury, the XV selected to face Exeter will be largely similar to the one that started the semi-final win against Bristol.
Initially Wasps had an outbreak of seven positives, including four players, and when an additional round of testing over the weekend presented four more cases the outlook was bleak. Two of those turned out to be false positives, however, and Blackett received the news he was hoping for at 2.30am on Wednesday, with no further cases from another set of tests meaning Wasps met the criteria laid down by Public Health England and could take their place in the final.
“It has added to the emotion and the buildup and when you feel like it has been taken away from you so cruelly, when you get the opportunity to get it back, it will make it even more special,” said Blackett. “There were sleepless nights through Tuesday and we got the results at about 2.30am so a few of us were up then and most of us didn’t go back to sleep. For us, it was such an emotional week we needed to lower the emotion on Wednesday as we needed to save that emotion and excitement for Saturday.
“I thought [waiting for the results] would be bad, I didn’t know it would be that bad. I probably fell asleep at 12.30am having checked my phone about 20 times a minute. Then I woke up just before 2am, checked if our physio and doctor were online on WhatsApp so I was stalking people to see, as they got the info before me. Then I saw our physio was online at 2am and at 2.30am he was still online and I started to think the worst – was he ringing people? He ended up texting me and gave me the good news. You think you can fall asleep, but far from it, I was too excited.”
Wasps were able to return to training only on Wednesday with their Coventry base swiftly shut down upon discovery of the outbreak. It means Blackett has had only limited time with his players as they set about avenging their 2017 Premiership final defeat by Exeter, who last Saturday were crowned European champions.
“It’s not ideal preparation, it might make us a bit fresher, Exeter played a really physical game and we have had two weeks’ rest – we wouldn’t have wanted it, but we have had it,” added Blackett. “We will be in a good position. You will see when our team gets announced. It’s a good team. Take the previous few games, there are only four players missing from that so we’ll be in a good position come the weekend.
“We have always said the safety of our players and family is more important than rugby. So if we feel someone spent too long or too much time with someone who is positive … it’s gut-wrenching for players to miss finals, especially when they have tested negative themselves, but the health and safety of our staff, our players, their families and Exeter is more important.”