Fes­tive fun can lift a team — and Wasps need a night out

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY / ROUND-UP / RESULTS - IAN McGEECHAN

THE fes­tive pe­riod can be a dif­fi­cult time of year for pro­fes­sional ath­letes. Rugby play­ers are no ex­cep­tion. Get­ting that bal­ance right be­tween fam­ily time and train­ing time. Let­ting your hair down and re­lax­ing while re­main­ing sen­si­ble and fo­cused. It can of­ten co­in­cide with an un­usu­ally busy run of fix­tures. But I have only good mem­o­ries.

I par­tic­u­larly re­mem­ber at Northamp­ton one year when we had a New Year’s Eve party at Tim Rod­ber’s house — a lovely con­verted barn — ahead of an away game at Sale. The play­ers had soft drinks, the wives and girl­friends had wine and ev­ery­one danced the night away. We trav­elled up the next day and put in an out­stand­ing per­for­mance to win a great game.

Those evenings can be the mak­ing of teams; when you re­ally get to know the peo­ple with whom you pack down; the guys for whom you bleed.

Wasps are a team who could cer­tainly do with some ac­cel­er­ated team bond­ing. One win in eight ahead of this af­ter­noon’s home fix­ture against Bath is not what the club nor their sup­port­ers would have en­vis­aged, given their squad.

It was not so long ago Wasps were reach­ing the Premier­ship fi­nal and ev­ery­one was singing their praises for their dy­namic, at­tack­ing rugby.

But I think re­ports of Wasps’ demise have been grossly ex­ag­ger­ated.

Lawrence Dal­laglio, who has been on the board of di­rec­tors since 2015, has pub­licly dis­missed any fi­nan­cial wor­ries. And as for their on-field is­sues, I watched their Cham­pi­ons Cup game against Toulouse last week­end and thought they looked bet­ter in at­tack than they have all sea­son.

Some­times you just have to say that luck is not on your side. Dai Young has had to con­tend with a hor­ren­dous run of in­juries to key play­ers. Dan Rob­son, Jimmy Gop­perth, Joe Launch­bury, Nathan Hughes — the list goes on. Any club would miss play­ers of that qual­ity.

On top of that, there has been a big turnover, with in­flu­en­tial fig­ures such as James Haskell and Danny Cipri­ani leav­ing and star Su­per Rugby sign­ings Lima Sopoaga and Brad Shields com­ing in.

Of course, you could blame the club for that up­heaval. But could they have done more to pre­vent Chris­tian Wade de­fect­ing to Amer­i­can foot­ball? I doubt it. I think Wade’s is­sue was more with Eng­land con­stantly over­look­ing him. Should Wasps — could they — have pre­vented Cipri­ani leav­ing? Pos­si­bly. But part of the rea­son he was so ef­fec­tive in the past two sea­sons was be­cause of his axis with Gop­perth.

Wasps did re­place Cipri­ani. With the sec­ond-choice All Black fly-half, no less. Sopoaga is still find­ing his feet in the Premier­ship, and it has not helped that Rob­son and Gop­perth have not been there to help him.

De­spite all that, there have been signs Wasps are re­dis­cov­er­ing their mojo. They showed real con­fi­dence in at­tack last week and pro­duced at­tack­ing rugby they would be ex­cited about repli­cat­ing to­day. That ap­proach has al­ways been an im­por­tant part of Wasps’ game plan.

What Wasps badly need to do is to im­prove their de­fence. As my old mate Shaun Ed­wards al­ways used to say when we were at the club: “De­fence wins cham­pi­onships.” He was right.

You only have to look at the points con­ceded col­umn in the Premier­ship ta­ble. Only two teams in the di­vi­sion have con­ceded more than their 260.

The par­al­lels be­tween them and Kevin Kee­gan’s New­cas­tle team of the mid-1990s have been trot­ted out. You score four tries, we’ll score five.

It is so much eas­ier to beat a team when you know you only need to score 15 or 20 points, rather than 30 or 40. That takes the pres­sure off.

All Wasps need is a scrappy one-point win. A tight 15-14 vic­tory against Bath to­day could turn their sea­son around. Not that it needs a huge amount of turn­ing. Wasps may be nearer the bot­tom points-wise than they are the top, but a win to­day could lift them to third.

Young has not got the team he wants out on the field yet, but if they can get their best play­ers fit and get a few wins they could be a real threat in the sec­ond half of the sea­son.

What­ever the re­sult to­day, even if Wasps lose, I would give the play­ers a proper break over Christ­mas. Telling play­ers you are giv­ing them time off and then tak­ing it away will only cause them to think you are pan­ick­ing.

Some­times I would even sur­prise play­ers with an ex­tra day off, telling them, “We’ve trained well. We’re ready.” My Scot­land team had lost four out of four lead­ing up to the Cal­cutta Cup clash with Eng­land in 2000, for in­stance, and we went off-road­ing in Land Rovers on the Wed­nes­day lead­ing up to the game. I felt the play­ers needed a break. Anx­ious play­ers tend not to per­form at their best.

Trust in your pro­cesses. And trust the play­ers to let their hair down sen­si­bly. Those with a fresh­ness and con­fi­dence will be best pre­pared to take the most from the Christ­mas chal­lenge.

Photo: David Davies

Sara­cens Vin­cent Koch is tack­led by Ex­eter’s Tom O’Fla­herty dur­ing the Gal­lagher Premier­ship match at Sandy Park yes­ter­day.

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