How Wasps turned their season round

Owen Slot traces the steps that led from the hatching of a plan to a Cup final place
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The Independent Online
AUGUST: A new season is welcomed with a new strategy. Wasps, frustrated by continually losing out to Bath and Leicester, decide to adopt the expansive style they have long admired in southern hemisphere teams. Rob Smith, the coach, Dean Ryan, the captain, and Steve Bates, the scrum-half, are the men behind the revolution.

Smith: "It all started when the lads came back from South Africa. England had been forced to change their game quite dramatically out there, and when Dean and Batesy came back, they rung me up and suggested pursuing the same game here."

Bates: "In our first game for the midweekers in South Africa, against the Orange Free State, we'd kicked all day and they kept running it back at us in wave after wave. We realised we would get swamped for the rest of the tour, so Dean, myself and Stuart Barnes had a chat and decided to take a leaf out of their book. This new approach was much more fun and Dean and I thought we had the right players at Wasps for it to work at home. When we proposed it, Smithy jumped at the idea - he'd had similar thoughts for some time."

Smith: "I then had to go away, look at the material we had to work with, and put together some video clips. On 20 August, a pre-season Saturday at Wasps, I chucked the video at the players and said: 'That's where we'll start off.' Those whose roles were changing the most were the hooker and the back-row. Instead of following the ball, they would be running away from it, getting into wider positions for the ball to come back to them. Everyone was excited about it, and we had some brilliant footballers to make it work: players like Lawrence Dallaglio took to it like a duck to water."

Bates: "There was a sense of adventure; we really felt we were breaking new ground."

Ryan: "This was not a romantic notion. I'd been at the club for six years and we'd always been runners-up or third. This was a long-term plan to put us top, so we made a conscious decision that whatever happened - the weather, the results, whatever - we would persevere."

10 SEPTEMBER: First game of the season. Wasps beat Gloucester 45-8. The following week, at Harlequins, they win 57-26.

Smith: "A brilliant start. In both games we went behind, but they stuck to what they were trying to do. The performance at Harlequins was fantastic. Nick Greenstock scored two beautiful tries and Damian Hopley's was a classic: the ball had gone through four rucks, came out and suddenly we had Hopley lined up against Jason Leonard - just the sort of mismatch we were trying to achieve. In the car park afterwards, there were supporters of both sides with huge smiles, stunned by what had happened. It was a recognition of something taking root and, for me, possibly the high point of the season."

24 SEPTEMBER: In wind and rain at West Hartlepool, Wasps lose 20-15, a game they could have won if they had kicked their penalties. The following week, Leicester beat them 23-18.

Ryan: "Having been built up so high, there was a feeling of falling off a cliff. Perhaps we were tactically naive, but West Hartlepool had to happen. Otherwise we would never find out what worked and what didn't."

Smith: "The lesson at Hartlepool was that you can't totally ignore the elements. The trouble was at Leicester the next week, when we had a backlash and went into our shells. We reverted to type."

Bates: "If anyone needed winning over to the new game, it happened at Leicester. There, we slipped into the old-style, set-piece game and it failed."

8 OCTOBER: Wasps lose 12-9 at Bath. But they win the next 10 consecutive games.

Bates: "The Bath game was a great match. We were back to our open game and everyone - the opposition, too - told us to stick to it. A third defeat, but light at the end of the tunnel."

Ryan: "We kept on improving right up to Christmas. And with the way we were playing, a number of players - Wilkins, Dallaglio, Ufton and Damian Hopley - guys who could have been just run-of-the-mill first-teamers, were really shining."

Smith: "There were a few crucial changes to last season that were becoming very effective. Putting Matt Greenwood in the second row gave us extra mobility and Norman Hadley, who was injured last season, became the flagship for it all to play off. And around this time, Nick Popplewell came into the side, adding a whole new dimension. But throughout, the essential guys in the team were the No8, Dean Ryan, and the two half-backs, Steve Bates and Rob Andrew. They controlled the game and were an excellent decision- making trio. "

Ryan: "There is a good understanding between the three of us. We are constantly coming together to discuss new ideas, what works and what doesn't."

4 MARCH: The winning streak ends in a 21-6 loss at Leicester.

Smith: "This was where we got horribly found out. Sides had been starting to pose us more difficult problems: closing us down in defence, sliding across the field to cover wide, and also, cynically, by stopping us taking quick penalties. Here, however, we simply weren't good enough at what we were trying to do."

Bates: "Afterwards, we returned to the club; myself, Dean, Smithy and Rob. There, we had a big think about where we should be going."

Ryan: "We recognised that we had become predictable, and that we had to mix things up."

25 MARCH: Wasps beat Bath 11-10; the following week they beat Leicester 25-22 in the Pilkington Cup semi-final, both victories with a more direct style.

Ryan: "Both wins were huge achievements and ultimate confirmation that what we were doing was working."

Smith: "The great thing was that the match-winning try at Leicester was the product of everything we had been working on all season: a tap-penalty had gone 40 yards from one side of the field to the other, all the way down to the goal line, and who was there but Norman Hadley to give the scoring pass."

Bates: "We'd had to bring the ball back to these sides more directly, but our emphasis was still on continuity. This was not selling out, though; we were just modifying, which any good team has to do."

Ryan: "Yes, we did curtail our game a bit, but we were still playing the same formula. We know now what we did at the start of the season will not bring sustained success, but that something near to it will. It's just a question of finding the right line, and that is what we will be hoping to achieve on Saturday at Twickenham."