Rugby Union: Melville's mission for sore losers

Paul Trow finds the champions' mentor is working hard to turn the tables
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Frustration should be Nigel Melville's middle name. His international career started so promisingly when he went on the 1983 Lions tour of New Zealand as an uncapped 21-year-old. But five, injury-blighted, unfulfilled years later, while captaining England at Twickenham against Ireland, he dislocated an ankle and never pulled on the famous white shirt again.

Fast forward a few years and the sparky Yorkshire-born scrum- half was masterminding unfashionable Otley's climb up the ranks. So well, in fact, that his alma mater, Wasps, invited him 18 months ago to revive their fortunes at the dawning of the new professional era. What happened next, though, surprised even north London rugby's supreme optimists; Wasps won the championship by six points without apparently even needing to resort to their owner Chris Wright's Tessa account.

Melville, as director of rugby, was lionised as a guru beyond his years and Wasps geared themselves up for a decade ofsuccess. Then came the present season and, out of the blue, a catastrophic loss of form.

As champions, Wasps were particularly focused on the European Cup. Swansea, Glasgow and Ulster were duly dismissed, and the stage was set for further glory only for a confidence-crunching 25-18 defeat by Brive at Loftus Road to implode their upwardly mobile world.

Worse followed, culminating in last month's 53-17 league defeat by Harlequins at the Stoop. Today, the same opponents lie in wait again, this time at Loftus Road in the fourth round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup.

For Melville, it has all been an unexpected setback. His playing career was derailed from the fast track and now the same threat looms over him as a coach. But he is nothing if not a fighter, and he is also a little tetchy at the way Wasps' struggles are viewed by the rest of the game.

"Of course, it's been very depressing and we have to work hard as a group to get out of this," he said. "But I defy anyone to suffer the disastrous run of injuries we've had and not be affected.

"Jonny Ufton - out for the season with cruciate ligament trouble. Andy Gomarsall - out for three months with a back injury. Alex King - still feeling his way back after a knee injury. Nick Greenstock - out till mid- January after being injured during an England training session. Rob Henderson - hurt his groin playing against Quins and needs surgery. Damian Hopley - needs a knee operation. Aaron James - torn groin muscle." Several boxes of Kleenex later, the listener to this New Year Honours List of woe could be forgiven for feeling that Melville's sense of proportion was also in intensive care when a flash of gallows humour put things in perspective. "It's so bad, I've got my own boots out from under the stairs."

Even in the hard, cruel world of professional rugby, the afflicted can have a laugh. And yet the problems with which Melville has wrestled this season are common to every coach in an environment which seems to ask too much of its players in terms of physical commitment. "Injuries are inevitable in rugby but this has been ridiculous. It shows you need a strong squad and it's difficult if you have only 30 professionals as we do. But how can you lose your four best centres or your first-choice half- back combinations? That sort of thing does disrupt you because you can only replace them with second-team players. Losing Alex and Andy at the same time was a big blow - it just isn't possible to replace international class players in those positions."

That, however, is the end of the excuses, and Melville is adamant that Wasps should still do much better despite their dismal luck. "Our poor form has been a combination of things, not just injuries. You have one bad performance, lose key players and it makes life more difficult. At the end of the day we have to perform. We're not thinking about league titles, cup runs, or anything like that. We're just concentrating on improving our consistency each match. If we do that then the results will come, but we've got to kick-start it. Lawrence Dallaglio has had a hard time, captaining England as well, but so have we all. We're all working harder, doing extra training and analysing the match videos on Sunday mornings. The players may have to turn out for international matches as well, but it's their job and career, and they are very lucky.

"Standards in the league are rising. We probably had the edge on fitness last year and don't have that this season. We want more top-quality fixtures rather than more games per se. The balance is wrong at present because we are switching around between competitions; it's difficult for spectators to know what the matches are all about."

The 5,000 or so who turned up for Tuesday's 22-18 victory over Richmond at Loftus Road knew full well what was at stake and Melville is upbeat about that display. "We're improving definitely. That was an important victory, but the signs were there in our defeat at Northampton last weekend. It was a good performance and a good game overall - both sides tried to play attractive rugby. Now we are really looking forward to the tie with Quins. Our defeat by them was a month ago, but we've improved. That was our worst possible performance, the bottom of the barrel. We're on the way up from that." Just like Nigel Melville whenever fate deals him another dose of frustration.

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