Moments after Wasps had beaten Bristol at the Ricoh Arena to book their first Twickenham final in three years, their captain, Joe Launchbury, formed a huddle with the players and told them not to get carried away.
Launchbury was mindful that in 2017 Wasps wasted so much emotional energy after their narrow victory against Leicester in the semi-final that they did not have enough to call on when they faced Exeter, their opponents a week on Saturday, in the final.
“As soon as we beat Leicester, it was a case of: ‘We have got to the final,’” said Jimmy Gopperth, the 37-year-old centre who is set to become the second oldest player to start a Premiership final after Mike Catt in 2009. “We did not really expect it, even though we had a star-studded side and were playing some awesome rugby.
“We probably played our final the week before. We went to Twickenham to ride the wave whereas now we have enough experience to appreciate that it is different and recognise what is in front of us. Hurt can go a long way when it comes to motivation.”
No one fancied Wasps to make the play-offs never mind finish second behind Exeter when they lost against Leicester in the middle of February and parted company with their director of rugby, Dai Young. It prompted three successive victories before lockdown and the run continued after the long break with Sale at home the only defeat under their head coach, Lee Blackett, in 13 matches.
“The change has been down to a number of little things,” Gopperth said. “They include a little bit of freedom and we stripped everything back, trusting ourselves so the result can take care of itself. We understand what we are trying to achieve as a group and we have great confidence.
“Since we came back from lockdown, fun has been our number one theme. If you cannot go out on Saturday and enjoy yourself, especially on the big occasions, you might as well not be there. Lee has been good at embracing the enjoyment factor. When we enjoy ourselves, we play well.”
Gopperth scored 22 points in the 47-24 victory against Bristol and created Wasps’ fifth try. The Bears have not beaten them in the league since 2006, their longest run of failure against a Premiership rival, but have the consolation of the European Challenge Cup final against Toulon in Aix-en-Provence on Friday.
“We will be ready for Toulon,” the Bristol director of rugby, Pat Lam, said. “Wasps were tremendous and did not let us get a foothold in the game. We turned the ball over 23 times and were penalised eight times on attack. I do not think anyone predicted at the start of the season that we would be in the play-offs and we have to come back from this stronger.”