The looming threats of relegation and administration may now seem like a distant memory to London Wasps and its fans.
Last season, the club faced no end of adversities last season, which included retirements to key players and an unprecedented injury crisis more severe than any in my recollection of rugby in the professional era. The six-time league winners were supplanted from their usual place near the top of the table and thrust into a desperate relegation battle which they narrowly avoided on the last day of the season.
Although an 11th place finish could never be viewed as a success for a club with Wasps’ pedigree or ambitions, I’d put forward that it’s the best thing to happen to the club in years.
Whilst a drop down to the Championship proved the perfect tonic for Harlequins in the 2005/06 season, a similar situation for Wasps last season could well have seen the end of one of England’s most celebrated and successful clubs. The Ken Moss-led consortium which took over the club prior to the start of this season, saving them from administration, had just one prerequisite – avoid relegation.
Injury-induced retirements to the likes of Tom Rees, Steve Thompson and John Hart may have been heartbreaking to the Wasps faithful at the time, but in their own way may have helped the club transition from the difficult post-Lawrence Dallaglio era, by forcing the introduction of many of their young academy stars.
Winger Christian Wade was arguably the find of the season, thrilling fans up and down the country with his sensational pace and clever footwork, but forwards Joe Launchbury and Billy Vunipola also made an instant impact after being thrust into the rigours of first team rugby, as did centre Elliot Daly.
Despite the considerable potential these players offered, it was unfair to expect them to shoulder the burdens of professional rugby without problem in their first year of significant playing time, one of which was of course a lack of experience. Herein lies perhaps the biggest difference between this season and last, the maturation of these exciting young players.
Although the growth of these players has been critical in the turning around of Wasps’ fortunes, it would be unfair to overlook the impact of senior players such as Tom Varndell, Sakaria Taulafo and Marco Wentzel, not to mention the tactical nous of Dai Young in the recruitment of James Haskell, Ashley Johnson and Stephen Jones amongst others.
In addition, the acquisition of Shane Howarth as backs coach has proven just as vital as player recruitment. He has been invaluable in the process of turning the high promise of Wasps’ raw backline into one of the most potent in the Premiership, a fact confirmed by the club having earned more bonus points than any other side in the league thus far.
Off-field issues surrounding the club also seem to be progressing positively, with CEO Nick Eastwood stating on Sunday that the club is ‘now working on a financial plan which will put us in a much stronger position in the short to medium term. Once this is in place and confirmed, we can then really start looking to the future and finalising our long term aims and ambitions’.
For perhaps the first time since the club won their last title in the 2007/08 season, there is a real positive feeling surrounding the High Wycombe-based outfit, who currently sit in fourth place and are undefeated at their home ground, Adams Park.
It may be slightly early to make any definite predictions over final standings in the Premiership, especially with the challenging Six Nations period approaching, but the club and its fans should be feeling confident about the future, and if they can make it into the play-offs, then anything could happen.
By Alex Shaw
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images