Ashley Johnson is in his fourth year at Wasps and in that time has witnessed a remarkable transformation in the club’s fortunes – both on and off the field.
This weekend’s European Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens shows just how far the club have come and the former Springbok admits it will be the biggest game in his time in Black and Gold.
Hit by injuries and enforced retirements, Dai Young’s side only narrowly avoided relegation from Aviva Premiership Rugby in the 2011/12 season but have shown gradual improvement every year since.
Last year they returned to Europe’s top table and this year finished first in a tough Pool that included defending champions RC Toulon, Leinster and Bath Rugby.
The last English team to win Europe’s premier competition was Wasps – back in 2007 – but since then the club’s fans have run the full gamut of emotions.
And Johnson admits they will use all of that as inspiration when they take on Saracens this weekend.
“It’s the biggest game I have ever played at the club,” he said.
“It’s a great opportunity for us, but we don’t want it to stop here – we want to go on to bigger and better things – we want to win some silverware, but we know the challenge ahead of us to achieve that.
“This has been a great journey for the club, and to have been here a few years now and witness how it has evolved is fantastic.
“Both on the pitch and off it, we have come a very long way.
“Most of the guys here have been involved in a lot of this journey as well which is great. It is a reward for all the effort that everyone has been putting in.”
Jimmy Gopperth’s last-gasp conversion kept the European dream alive for Wasps as they downed Exeter Chiefs in dramatic style in the quarter-finals earlier this month.
Young’s in-form side have now only lost one of their last 13 games in all competitions and have set up both a European and then an Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final in the coming weeks.
But this week it is all about Europe and Johnson is desperate to send the fans home happy at the Madejski Stadium this weekend.
“At the end of the day we need to just enjoy it, not many players get to play in European semi finals,” he added.
“We are really excited – of course there will be a bit of nerves as the weekend gets closer but nerves are good – we can prepare as best we can.
“And it will come down to who takes their chances best over the 80 – or probably actually – 85 minutes.
“We were ninth in the league at one point this season – and everyone has put in the hard work – not just the players but the coaches and everyone else behind the scenes.
“And now we have an opportunity to achieve something special. The first target was the top six and getting out of our group but we have two semi-finals ahead of us.
“But even on this run – there have been a few performances that were not up to standard – everything we have achieved so far counts for nothing if we cannot be at our best against Saracens this weekend.”
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