Wasps' familiar early woes cause unfamiliar anxiety
Tuesday 16 September 2008
The reigning champions have been in "played two, lost two" territory before, most recently in 2004. Last year, when they won once in six outings at the start of the season, was not so special either. But there is something about Wasps' start to the current campaign that has people seriously worried down High Wycombe way, not least the international flanker Tom Rees, who had some strong things to say about the situation yesterday.
Rees was probably his side's best player when they went down to London Irish in their opening fixture at Twickenham 11 days ago and took the man-of-the-match rosette in the unexpected home defeat by Worcester at the weekend, but his own form does not appear to be making him feel better. "We have to hold our hands up and say we've been stupid in terms of the penalties we've given away," he remarked. "To still be giving them away after 80 minutes, as we did against Worcester, is plain crazy."
Wasps are notoriously poor starters: only once in the past six seasons have they won two on the bounce straight from the get-go. Sometimes these problems have been easily explained – in 2003-04 and 2007-08 they were seriously weakened by World Cup calls – and anyway, they have made a habit of recovering spectacularly from early travails. Four titles in half a dozen attempts tells its own story.
But the harsh language currently in wide circulation suggests there is a genuine sense of unease running through English rugby's most successful operation. Ian McGeechan, the director of rugby, described Sunday's performance as "unacceptable" while Rees, a plain speaker, added: "The fact that we've come back from bad starts in previous years counts for nothing, because this is about the here and now and it gets harder every year in the Premiership. This will be a difficult week because there is a lot of anger in the squad. That will be a good thing if we channel it properly, but if we allow frustration to build up, it'll make things worse."
This weekend's visit to Northampton has taken on fresh importance because, in Premiership terms, Wasps will not have a full squad from which to choose for very much longer. (Under the new agreement between the top-flight clubs and the Rugby Football Union on international player release, influential personnel will have to be rested over the next couple of weeks, and will soon head off to prepare for England's autumn Tests). What is more, both McGeechan and his second-in-command, Shaun Edwards, are about to face distractions. Edwards will be away with Wales; McGeechan is about to divide his time between club duties and another bout of Lions business.
No one at Wasps is blaming subterranean performance levels on the confusing Experimental Law Variations being trialled in the Premiership, which is just as well. Like most right-thinking union followers McGeechan, one of the game's shrewdest strategists, has no time for the ELVs; however, Wasps are among the clubs who should, in theory, benefit from the changes, given their dynamic, top-of-the-ground style of rugby.
Perhaps the explanation is one of leadership, or the lack of it. After Lawrence Dallaglio, a revered captain of long standing, bade his farewells after last season's victory in the Premiership final, Rees said: "We'll miss him terribly, but I'm confident the mentality he has instilled into us will take us forward. Lawrence may have gone, but the attitude stays." The truth of that assertion will be established in the coming weeks.
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