Festive fun can lift a team — and Wasps need a night out
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.
Saracens Vincent Koch is tackled by Exeter’s Tom O’Flaherty during the Gallagher Premiership match at Sandy Park yesterday.