Rugby Union: Country can wait for the real King

Like his side, Wasps' stand-off is on the way back. By David Llewellyn
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THE FINGERS of those Wasps fans with little faith are even now reaching for it. In their mind's eye they can see the way everything seemed to fall apart last season. Was it really only two short years ago that Wasps were being feted as league champions? And was it really only 18 months since they were rumbling, seemingly unstoppable - into the European quarter-finals?

What a difference since then. Their inaugural season in the Allied Dunbar Premiership quickly turned into a nightmare. Bounced out of the Heineken European Cup at that quarter- final stage by the eventual finalists Brive, they remained dazed and stunned on the ropes for a long while after that, turning what should have been a competitive defence of their title into a one-sided contest in which they were unable to punch their weight.

No wonder then that rather than wait for a few more rounds of matches this season, the over-anxious (and faithless) among the Wasps support want to press the panic button. And who can blame them? The trip down to Bath would have shaken them up a bit; the home defeat against Swansea in the unofficial Anglo-Welsh match definitely rattled them. But when London Irish were rolled over on their own turf last weekend surely that called for a reassessment? Surely that should have stayed the trembling hands of those fans?

Certainly no one is flapping at Wasps. Least of all the players. Alex King, for so long sidelined with a knee injury, has been a frustrated spectator for too long, but all that is about to end as he has finally proved his fitness and will now be in contention for a starting place, beginning with today's game at home to West Hartlepool.

"Last year was a real challenge for me and for the whole team," the England fly-half said. "But things are looking good this year. Mark Weedon has brought a hard edge to the team as captain, a lot of the guys have matured as players in the last 12 months and there is a strong spine to the team and a great attitude.

"On a personal level, for the first time in 10 months when I wake up I really feel that I want to play. I am no longer in pain, so I can now concentrate on my game rather than on trying to nurse my injury through a match. Now all I have to worry about is the battle to get the No 10 jersey."

Certainly reports of their disastrous season are already a touch premature to say the least. All right, last year was not good, but they should not be judged solely on past failures, and anyway, as Nigel Melville, their director of rugby, explained, there were mitigating circumstances. "The fall-off in form coincided with a lot of injuries," Melville said.

"Alex [King] was the first to go, then Andy Gomarsall suffered with his back, Nick Greenstock was injured in an England training session; Will Green, our prop, was injured playing against Australia; Simon Shaw had joined us but he was unfit from the Lions tour; and, all the while, Lawrence [Dallaglio] was carrying this shoulder problem and just going from week to week."

It meant that Wasps' squad system was tested to the full. "You need strength in depth," Melville explained. "But having to play five or six cover players at a time is a pretty tough thing for any club to do. We were champions, but we were not defending our title with the team that won the championship. A lot of those cover players were very inexperienced at that stage."

But Melville is also honest enough to admit: "We began last season with an away win in the league at Bristol, then went straight into six pool matches in the European Cup, which were easy, too easy."

So there was a deal of complacency, a bad attitude which was carried beyond their European campaign and into the rest of the domestic season. This time around there is going to be no danger of them sitting back and feeling pleased with themselves.

Melville draws on the end of last season as proof that they have turned things around. "Towards the end of the Premiership programme we beat Newcastle, Northampton, Leicester and Harlequins and we did also reach the final of the Tetley's Bitter Cup," Melville said pointedly.

"This year to do what we did at London Irish last week shows we have overcome a mental barrier as well, because they did the double over us last season. Furthermore, those cover players last year are now genuine competitors for first-team places, and one or two of the signings, such as Josh Lewsey and Fraser Waters, have added strength in depth in key areas. Additionally, we appear to have overcome the long-term casualties."

Their talismanic back-row man Dallaglio is up and running again in no uncertain terms; significantly, his first game back was against London Irish. King played his first competitive match in midweek for the second XV against Leicester and by all accounts had a blinder. Shaw, too, is looking sharp.

The only blow to date has been the concussion suffered by Gareth Rees, their kicking machine, in the "friendly" against Swansea, but even that has turned out to be not as serious a setback as at first feared. Kenny Logan has proved as adept a goal-kicker as he is a try- scorer and has taken over the kicking duties with aplomb.

Today's Premiership match against West Hartlepool will be a further test of how far Wasps have come since those dark days of last winter. King insists: "Wasps are buzzing again." A lot of people are hoping he is right.