GIVEN THAT LEINSTER are the most prolific attacking team in the Heineken Champions Cup, averaging 33.4 points and 4.6 tries per game this season, Wasps defence coach Ian Costello may have the toughest job of anyone in European rugby this week.
The former Munster assistant coach’s work is, of course, largely done by now and it’s the Wasps players who are tasked with implementing a plan to stifle Leinster’s attacking intent at the Ricoh Stadium today [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport].
Costello, right, joined Wasps from Nottingham last summer. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Last time Wasps faced Leo Cullen’s team, at the RDS back in October, it didn’t end well for the Premiership side as they shipped eight tries in a 52-3 defeat.
“Your first game with a new club back in Ireland, to come out the wrong end of a 50-point defeat was hugely disappointing,” says Costello, who joined Wasps from Nottingham last summer.
Wasps learned the hard way in that game, particularly from having to make “80 minutes worth of tackles in that first 35 or 40 minutes” and not lifting the pressure valve from themselves, resulting in Leinster pulling well clear in the second half.
With another opportunity to take on Europe’s best team, this time at home in Coventry, the Premiership outfit are keen to make life much more difficult for the visitors.
In truth, it has been a difficult season so far for Dai Young’s team, who haven’t won in the Heineken Cup and sit sixth in the Premiership.
They did manage to end a five-game losing streak two weekends ago with a morale-boosting win at home to Northampton in the Premiership, before slipping to a narrow defeat away to Bath in Europe last weekend.
With key men Joe Launchbury and Dan Robson – both of whom start today as Elliot Daly also returns – back, the last fortnight has seen some of the gloom around Wasps lifting and their defence has made clear improvements.
“The Northampton game was our best 80 minutes defensively, no question,” says Costello, who also coaches Wasps’ exits. “We made one mistake for a first-phase try, which was an individual system error.
“But the things like the excitement, the energy, the body language, the intent, all those parts of the game that reflect where you are emotionally and how hard you’re willing to work for each other, it was by quite a distance the best we’ve had.
“To be honest, we’re really disappointed that it’s taken a long time to come together but the players have bought into the way we’re trying to do things.”
Costello was previously defence coach at Munster. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO
Director of rugby Young hired Costello with creating a more holistic approach to Wasps’ game in mind, an intent to ensure the club’s players bring as much enthusiasm to defending as they have done in attack.
“The club’s DNA has been, for a long time, ‘We will score more tries than you,’ with a massive attacking focus – and rightly so, the club have been tremendous to watch over the last couple of years,” explains Costello.
“Dai has a very clear idea of where we want to go – that DNA needs to be high energy, high tempo, high intensity on both sides of the ball. We want to score tries, we’re excited to get the ball in our hands and also we’re excited to get the ball back when we’re defending.”
With 36 tries conceded in the Premiership and 22 in their five European games, the Wasps defence has come in for criticism this season and Costello says he has been grateful for Young’s support publicly and privately, the director of rugby stressing to him that time was required for everything to come together.
Indeed, Costello says the highly-experienced Young has remained calm and positive in all aspects throughout what was a difficult first half of the campaign for Wasps.
“When less-experienced DORs and head coaches might have panicked or lost confidence, because of his experience and what he’s been through in the last 15 or 20 years, he kept us on the same path with a belief and confidence we would come out the other side.”
Costello, who worked as defence coach for Munster under Anthony Foley, says his coaching of this area of the game has developed in recent years, although not solely in terms of the technical and tactical elements.
A keen student of the game, Costello has soaked up everything he could from various influences since his days as UL Bohemians’ boss in the AIL and leading Munster A to British and Irish Cup success in 2012.
He visited the Hurricanes and Highlanders in New Zealand last summer, having previously spent time with Australian and South African clubs, while he recently had a stimulating day observing at England camp under Eddie Jones.
“I’ve been very fortunate to spend time with people who I’d consider very good defence coaches,” says Costello.
Anthony Foley played a key role in Costello’s development. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“Obviously, Axel first of all. Andy Farrell was in with us at Munster as a consultant, so I had that access for five or six months.
“Last summer, the Highlanders and Hurricanes, who were very excited both sides of the ball. John Plumtree was excellent to be around and talk to and spend time watching in action.
“You have who you are as a coach, your styles and philosophies, and that’s what stands someone apart as a coach. Then it’s the technical detail.