RUGBY UNION: Tactical revolution has Andrew at its hub: Wasps have taken off in the league with a devastating style that is winning hearts as well as matches. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
WE MAY be witnessing a revolution in the way English rugby is played but the revolutionaries seem scarcely to know it. Sudbury, even located as it is in Brent, may be an unlikely Winter Palace, but the Wasps who play there are storming to a new and thrilling kind of success.

The real test of Wasps' intent to spread the game wide as a matter of course will come only when they play Leicester and Bath, the First Division's other 100 per cent sides, on the first two Saturdays of October. But 45 points against Gloucester followed by 57 against Harlequins, 16 tries in all, must mean something - and struggling West Hartlepool are liable to suffer more of the same tomorrow.

If others - England perhaps? - follow suit, it will be the most significant strategic rethink in the English game in years. Yet Rob Smith, the visionary Wasps coach, makes it sound simple: 'It's trying to get the ball into the wide channels and organising support there. To go into a great deal more detail would be a bit laborious. You move the decision-making from the midfield areas, which are nearly always congested, to the side. Players are suddenly in space and happy to use their hands.'

The fulcrum of Wasps' extraordinarily bold policy is the outside- half. Rob Andrew, as well as being a prime ministerial sporting ambassador in South Africa, is giving the lie to those who have felt him incapable of tailoring his play to an open game ever since he left Cambridge a decade ago.

But the demand on Andrew is far more subtle than expecting him to take the ball closer to the opposition than has been his conservative habit down the years. In fact, this is what he does only when the Wasps pack win quick ball. When it is slower, he stands deeper but still moves it wide as the first option.

'One big influence on us was Auckland when they played us last season,' Smith said. 'They play this wide, stretching game, pushing the ball across the park without looking for too much penetration. You end up with mismatches, a centre such as Damian Hopley running at a prop, backs running at forwards. That turns the English philosophy on its head because the English philosophy seems to be to get forwards running at backs.'

The effect was gloriously shown in the nine tries - seven in the second half - Wasps ran past Harlequins last Saturday, when the running game left the defenders infinitely more exhausted than the attackers. 'We have a fairly rigid pattern but obviously people have to read it and make the relevant changes on the hoof.'

As the coach tells it, the front five are the forwards who have to do most of the running around because the back row have a strictly defined role staying infield so as to sustain attacks each time they move back inside. Moreover as attacking is as feasible, sometimes more so, from deep positions there is no overriding necessity to 'get down there' first.

It sounds risky but Dean Ryan, as vehement a rugby revolutionary as anyone in north London, insists it was far riskier when Wasps were taking the more obvious safety- first route. 'We have great strike potential within the club and we felt we were ignoring it to our detriment,' the Wasps captain said.

'Over the past year or two there have been a lot of games that have narrowly gone against us even though we've been the better side, and by playing a forward-orientated game there's always an element of risk that you lose when you should win. We feel that by playing this way we should win every game, as long as we are good enough to win it in the first place.'

The risk, such as it is, is reduced because the strategy has been so carefully planned. 'It's difficult to see how it can go wrong,' Smith said. 'It's not like Barbarians rugby. It's much more controlled than that. It's not throw-it-around just for the sake of it. The only thing is you have to make absolutely sure you retain possession.'

Ryan, Steve Bates and Andrew (the 8-9-10 of the team) returned from England's summer tour of South Africa enthused with the possibilities they had seen demonstrated by Transvaal and others. When the Wasps squad then met and Smith described what he intended for them, the response was ecstatic. 'They thought they'd won the league after one training session,' he said.

The seed had been sown earlier, however. Auckland had demonstrated the possibilities when winning 28-25 at Sudbury last November and by the end of January, with their cup and league aspirations unfulfilled, Wasps finally decided to go for it - at The Stoop, as it happens.

'We decided we were going to go out there and give it full throttle. The usual tackle-count against us is about 80 but in that game Harlequins made 139. And by the way, we lost.' And, Smith might have added, went on to lose five of their remaining eight league matches, which hardly seemed a recommendation.

No matter. Ryan returned from South Africa doubly determined. 'What we found was that if you could attack wide channels and get numbers there it was very difficult to defend against,' he said. 'Provided you are consistently able to reproduce the ball, the pace of this game is almost impossible to live with.

'It's too early to tell after a couple of games, especially with Leicester and Bath coming up. But I do think the game should be played wider, with the ball in hand. There's too much left to chance if you play it just through scrums and line-outs. We know people are waiting for us to fall down and we're not necessarily saying it's the answer for everyone. All we do know is it's the answer for Wasps.'

(Photograph omitted)

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