WASPS back row star Ashley Johnson believes that the toughest games are still to come this season.
Johnson has been a key figure in a headline-grabbing back row since his arrival from the Freestate Cheetahs over the summer, and he believes the remaining fixtures for Wasps, which include home clashes against Gloucester, Northampton, Saracens, Leinster and Exeter, will prove a sizeable challenge.
Last weekend’s nail-biting victory over the reigning league champions Harlequins at The Stoop pushed Wasps back into the top four.
Combined with a European quarter-final against Leinster in a couple of weeks, the prospects going into the final stages of the season are hugely positive for the men in black and gold.
However, it is clear that Johnson and the rest of the squad are not planning on resting on their laurels.
He said: “We expect more of ourselves now. We have been doing well but every week you have to improve.
"We know that we are not by any means a complete package, there is loads of stuff that we have to work on, which is a good thing if you are still winning but can see where you need to get better.”
“The way we play our rugby is exciting. We give guys opportunities to express themselves and, alongside those experienced heads, we have some really talented individuals here who can do some remarkable things.”
Johnson was part of a wave of new players who joined the club last summer, who supplemented a host of young talent with a lot of experience and know-how. I s that combination of the two ends of the spectrum the reason for the drastically different success of this season compared to the last?
He said: “We don’t have a very big squad, so the fact that we have managed to keep the majority of guys fit so far this year has obviously been a massive help.
"From what I have been told about last season there were a large number of injuries, and when you have that in a small squad it is obviously going to have a massively negative impact.”
“There is a good atmosphere here, everyone wants to do well both personally and as a team. That is obviously true of the young guys who are inevitably going to be enthusiastic, but it is true even of the older guys like Stephen Jones who spends a lot of time making sure that he is ready for the weekend and helping out the young guys as well.”
“There are a lot of young guys here with a lot of enthusiasm and there are a lot of guys here with great senses of humour so coming into the club it wasn’t immediately obvious that they had just been through such a tough relegation battle.
"However, as I settled in, it was clear from the determination the guys had in everything they did that there was something driving them.
"I think that what they went through last season gave those guys a taste of something they didn’t want to be involved with again. There was a clear desire to do well and there was an excitement about the place at the start of the season.”
Fans of Wasps will have also seen Johnson grow into his role in the team and he says that, coming into the Aviva Premiership having played all of his rugby previously in the Super Rugby competition, there was a lot of work for him to do to adapt to the physicality and style of play.
He said: “There is a huge difference between the two. If you say there isn’t a big difference and it is only rugby wherever it is played then you are simply lying to yourself.
"For me, I had to just concentrate on settling into the club, getting to know the structures and then I could adapt to the different pace and physicality.
"To start with I was on the bench, which wasn’t a bad thing for me because it allowed me to get to know the structures.
"Obviously I have personal goals, which are basically to keep improving every week and that was no less critical than when I first arrived at Wasps. I had to grow into my role and I feel a lot more comfortable now as part of the team.”
This weekend Wasps face Gloucester at Adams Park at Johnson says that, in a period of tough fixtures, the side have to take each game as it comes, however clichéd that may be.
He said: “We are up against a lot of tough teams in the next few weeks. Gloucester, Northampton, Saracens, Leinster and Exeter will all be coming to Adams Park targeting us and they are all going to be tough battles, not to even mention the away trips we have.
"Every game from here on in needs to have all of our focus in the lead up so we cannot afford to get ahead of ourselves. Gloucester this weekend is the first of those and the boys have been focussed on nothing else in the build-up this week.”