Homing instinct is tinged with fear for Tom Palmer
He is worried, but England lock remains committed to a return to troubled Wasps
After three seasons coining in the Euros in France and in the process more than doubling his total of England caps, Tom Palmer is ready to come home to Wasps. Trouble is, the lock planning the end to his voluntary exile with Stade Français is not sure Wasps are ready to have him. "All the new signings they've made, and the current players, are waiting to see what will happen," Palmer said of the hoped-for sale of the fallen champions by the current owner, Steve Hayes. "I suppose we'll have to wait until after the final game because if you're a new owner, you're going to wait for that before you commit to anything."
A commitment is what Palmer made in February when he signed a two-year contract to return to the club with whom he won a Heineken Cup and a Premiership in the first two of his three seasons there from 2006 to 2009. He knew it had been announced last October that Wasps were up for sale, but he was reassured that Hayes had guaranteed to cover spending on wages up to the salary cap for the next two years. Palmer's understanding now is that Hayes is no longer providing that undertaking, but the new hope is that a buyer – reportedly a consortium led by the former player Ken Moss – will sweep away both that doubt and the one that Wasps might enter administration and suffer a ruinous deduction of 22 points either this season or next or both. "If they go into administration then I could be searching for someone else to play for," said Palmer.
The season's on-field business will be concluded next Saturday when Wasps host fellow former Premiership champions Newcastle Falcons in a meeting of the league's bottom two clubs. With a four-point advantage and a much better points difference, Wasps would have to lose by a huge margin to go down. Whoever finishes bottom may in any case be spared if the second-division Championship winners do not fulfil the Premiership's entry criteria. Meanwhile the off-field uncertainty has given Wasps – six times league winners and twice European champions – the stomach-knotting anxiety familiar to Portsmouth, Rangers and any number of questionably run football clubs.
"We fear for the club unless they get an owner," said Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby who in his first season has been assailed by a catastrophic injury list, unexpected retirements and the bailing-out by Hayes after a plan to develop a new stadium in High Wycombe fell through. "My understanding of where we are at the minute is things are very close, things are very positive. Make no bones about it, unless we get the right amount of investment we'll be in the same position next year. Historically we're one of the biggest clubs, but not now. Our infrastructure is miles behind. You look at your big clubs of the minute, your Harlequins and your Northamptons, who by going down took a long hard look at themselves, both on and off the field, and came back stronger. What I'm hoping is we can take that long hard look at ourselves and we can come back stronger – without going down. I think we've had the fright of our lives and hopefully we can stick in there by the skin of our teeth."
Tom Varndell, the Wasps wing whose try-saving tackle at Bath last weekend helped secure a monumentally important losing bonus point, described the season as "horrible" and "pretty stressful". The lowest point was a meeting two weeks ago when the players were told a sale to a group including Tony Kleanthous, the chairman of Barnet Football Club, had fallen through – or, possibly, stalled while new terms were agreed. At around the same time it was revealed Hayes, who took over Wasps in 2008 and has seen more than 20 internationals leave or retire in his time, was on bail after being arrested on suspicion of computer hacking.
Over in Vaucresson, the western suburb of Paris, where Palmer was married in the local town hall two years ago, he has followed the worrying narrative via phone calls to Wasps players, communications through his agent and reports in the press. Considering Palmer's season began with a change of ownership at Stade Français amid accusations of fraud over missing funds he has done superbly to maintain form and by appearing in 12 of England's 13 Tests, taken his cap total to 37. All this while England, in theory, were dead against picking players based abroad.
"The reason I was coming back to England was to carry on playing for England," said Palmer, whose career started at Leeds. "Rugby wise I've developed my game among high quality players. There's good signings at Wasps – [England forward] James Haskell, [Wales fly-half] Stephen Jones, [Springbok prospect] Ashley Johnson – to add to the great youngsters they've got, so it should be a very strong squad. I'd hope it could be the top half of the league next season."
On Friday he played in Stade Français' 32-29 defeat to Toulon in the Amlin Challenge Cup final. Wasps' European ranking points mean they could yet qualify for next season's Heineken Cup by the back door.
"Some of the French teams can afford to have 35 top-quality players," Palmer said. "It will make an English club winning the Heineken Cup difficult. But I think for the England team the way it is in England is better,not having many foreign players in the Premiership and more young guys getting the opportunity to play. The young guys at Wasps have taken their chance." Palmer cannot wait to join them.
Clubs on the rocks: Teams who hit financial trouble
Wakefield Began open era solidly in second division but falling attendances and reduced central subsidies saw the club of former England captain Mike Harrison close in 2004.
Orrell High-flyers in top division, pioneered ground-sharing with matches against Leicester and Bath at Wigan RL's Central Park in 1996. Ran out of cash and funding from Wigan Athletic owner Dave Whelan was short-lived. Lost Edge Hall Roadhome and now playing in South Lancs/Cheshire One.
Richmond and London Scottish Big names in amateur era, gambled on professional success without owning a stadium to match. Both clubs were demoted eight divisions in 1999, but they have regrouped magnificently at old Athletic Ground home.
West Hartlepool Invested in overseas players while in top division in 1990s but soon relegated and lost their Brierton Lane home. Now in National Three North, sharing Brinkburn ground with Hartlepool Sixth Form College.
Wasps Sold former ground at Sudbury during moves to QPR's Loftus Road and Adams Park in High Wycombe. Pro team London Wasps now up for sale; their training ground in Acton is owned by amateur club Wasps FC.
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