Rugby Union: Change that stirred up Wasps' nest: Steve Bale reports on the fall and rise of the rugby union club whose change in fortune has them ahead of the pack

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The Independent Online
No one is laughing at the laughing- stocks any more. As the Courage Clubs' Championship emerges from hibernation, Wasps lead the First Division with its only 100 per cent record. With six down and six to play, beginning with the north London derby against Saracens at Southgate today, the title's fate lies in their own hands.

If this seems a statement of the obvious, Wasps' mid-season pre-eminence is a cause for the warmest congratulations. After all, this was the club that 10 months ago was squirming with embarrassment, having lost face as well as its coach; misfortune and carelessness rolled into one.

'We are being held up to ridicule,' Mark Rigby, then captain, confessed. There had been his scuffle with one of his players, Richard Kinsey, before a match in Paris; the fining of five Wasps who dropped their trousers at a tournament in Malaysia.

Rob Andrew, the England outside- half, moved to France; others left and umpteen were injured; too many matches were lost and Wasps slid to seventh, their worst league position by three places. The only consolation was that Harlequins, their perennial antagonists, finished even lower.

Above all, Rob Smith, the former No 8 who had come to epitomise the club after 16 years as player and coach, resigned in protest at the failure of Wasps' unwieldy administration to treat the players as it would have the players treat the club.

As Rigby put it: 'The players are prepared to give their commitment to training, to their own personal conditioning, and to apply themselves on a Saturday, and they wish to see the same level of commitment from the management of the club. That hasn't necessarily been the case.'

It seems a long time ago. Smith returned as coach in the summer after Wasps' outsize management committee had metamorphosed into the 'club council' with power passed to an executive of four. That one of its members is Sir Pat Lowry is a splendid irony: Sir Pat used to chair the arbitration and conciliation service Acas. Rigby is another.

'A small group like this is able to dispatch the increasingly complex business of managing a modern rugby football club in a more efficient and speedy manner than its much larger predecessor,' Wasps' own press release said, omitting to add that it had taken the trauma of the coach's departure to force the issue.

Modern, businesslike management for modern rugby times - as opposed to the committee system endemic in rugby union - suited Smith and Tony Jorden, coach in his absence, turned out to be a temporary appointee.

But then those in the know always expected Smith back. 'Either you accept the need for change or sit still while everyone else moves forward,' Rigby had said. 'It's disappointing that it's needed the resignation of the club coach to shake people into action but if we start to make a bit of progress I don't see why he won't be back.'

And so it came to pass, though the remarkable thing is that Smith, a 41- year-old Bristolian who joined Wasps while at Borough Road College in 1974, has been back living in his native city since 1990 - a trained teacher running his own painting and decorating business. With last season's controversy, the thrice-weekly 250-mile round trip on the M4 had lost its allure.

'It's a chore and it wears me out,' he said. 'What makes it worthwhile is the players' response.' The tacit reproach is that it was not worthwhile while the club, leaders in recruiting in the days when Cambridge Blues beat a path from Grange Road to Sudbury, were neglecting things like recruitment and player welfare.

The latter is a euphemism for ensuring players are treated at least as well as the regulations allow. 'What goes on off the field does affect what happens on the field and I felt we were just accepting the fact that we were struggling. There was confusion in the club's decision-making which meant we simply weren't able to do anything quickly enough.'

The sundry embarrassments were not, Smith insists, symptomatic of the malaise - but because of the underlying discontent they were that much harder to cope with and were disproportionately detrimental. 'Now we have reorganised; the load is spread but with roles and responsibilities much more clearly defined. My resignation was certainly designed to force the issue and there was no guarantee I'd come back. I don't know if I would have wanted to invite myself back.'

The reward has been six straight league victories which put Wasps two points ahead of Bath, Leicester and Northampton. 'To be honest, I didn't expect such a positive result as quickly as this but I knew when I saw us in our first league game against West Hartlepool that the team would gel,' Smith said.

'There are now no distractions. With the way we are progressing and the players we have, I can't see any reason why we can't continue to win, including at Bath.' By then (13 March) Andrew will have completed his three-month penance - sorry, qualification - after returning from Toulouse, so another problem will be solved.

But the key to Wasps' solution has been their honest recognition that problems did exist. 'The club was in turmoil towards the end of last season,' Dean Ryan, Rigby's successor, acknowledged. 'A string of different things went wrong and they all had something to do with us losing on the field.

'It was a question of confidence, really. We've proved that the people who said this was the end of Wasps were wrong. Off the field we are now very settled, which has left Rob and me to concentrate on on-the-field activities, the actual playing of the game.' And not before time.

(Photograph omitted)