Josh Lewsey picked a dangerous line, the equivalent of the ones he is apt to take on a rugby field, when he considered the implications of three Wasps team-mates signing for clubs in France. “Wasps will always be judged by results. We’ve had unparalleled success in the last few years and our challenge is to keep that going. People will always want to be part of a successful set-up.” The club are out of the Heineken Cup and EDF Energy Cup, and 18 points adrift of the play-off places in the Premiership with 10 matches to play. Silverware this season would be a surprise.
Yet when the forthcoming departures of England internationals James Haskell and Tom Palmer to Stade Français and Riki Flutey to Brive were confirmed in midweek, Lewsey’s bullishness was reflected by Wasps’ head coach Shaun Edwards, who said: “We expected them to go.” The club’s director of rugby Ian McGeechan predicted the rest of the squad including Danny Cipriani would remain intact, plus “some new additions”.
Why, then, the wringing of hands over this bout of Channel hopping? Martin Johnson and Rob Andrew said on the RFU’s behalf that players would be watched less in France, and not going head to head with their positional rivals suggested that their selection would be compromised.
This after Andy Goode of Brive started at fly-half against Italy and Wales in the past fortnight and Johnson told Brive’s hooker Steve Thompson last summer that he was on the England radar. Andrew himself played for England while with a French club (Toulouse), as did Maurice Colclough (Angoulême) and Nigel Horton (Toulouse) before him.
The much-prized two weeks’ training time before the autumn and Six Nations international windows was, according to Haskell, written into his deal with Stade Français. It would be difficult to see an England exile getting picked if this was not the case.
Perhaps it is not English rugby – home to players from all over the world – but specific clubs who are vulnerable. The talk in France is of further raids on Bristol and Newcastle, both of whom have owned up to needing fresh cash. Shaun Perry, Adrian Jarvis and Jason Hobson of Bristol have been linked with Toulon; Jonny Wilkinson and Jamie Noon with Racing-Métro, who are also said to be after Gloucester’s Iain Balshaw.
It is only a handful of French sides who are brandishing the powerful euro but they are bringing the free market to the Premiership’s sporting socialism, in which millions of pounds of central funding are “smoothed” around the 12 clubs. Wasps are bumping up against the salary cap and are seeking a bigger, better stadium than the one they share in High Wycombe. The retirement of their hooker Raphael Ibanez was announced in the club’s “boardroom”, which is a portable cabin at their west London training ground.
“The old established [English] clubs with big attendances and an economic grounding, as it were, should be OK with their players,” said Lewsey. “But you’ve got freedom of movement in employment in Europe and wealthy benefactors who will pump money into a club for a short period of time. Look at the way football has gone. Very few people stay at a club their whole life, and it will become less common in rugby as we move forward.”
Both Wasps’ coaching head honchos have worked across England’s borders: McGeechan with Scotland and the Lions; Edwards with Wales. If another club made the right offer – say, London Scottish, who have great ambitions and past connections with McGeechan – few would criticise a coach for switching employers. As McGeechan put it: “If a player wants to play for the money, that’s up to him.”
It is arguable, nevertheless, that Haskell’s bank balance and that nebulous quality called public esteem would have been better served by him staying put. The two Wasps who have combined longevity with a lucratively high profile – Lewsey and Lawrence Dallaglio – spurned offers to join French clubs in the past. “I’m not going to say anything detrimental about James,” said Lewsey. “He’s a big character, and a fun guy to have around, and professional sport is about enjoyment along with everything else. But let’s not exaggerate what has happened. Riki only came to Wasps last season and Tom hasn’t been here that long. There’s a delicate balance to be struck, when England players are missing for the best part of half a season.”
There is nothing delicate about Wasps’ schedule. Lewsey is paired with Dom Waldouck in the centres to face Northampton today, with Worcester, London Irish, Gloucester, Bristol, Saracens, Bath and Newcastle to follow by the first week in April. “The players and coaches had a long chat last week because we know the next six weeks will make or break our season,” said Lewsey. “People have said Wasps have got big-match players, but you need big matches to play in, and that means the play-offs.”