It has been a chastening few days for England’s top-flight clubs – five defeats in six quarter-final ties spread across two European tournaments, four of them on home territory, left them reflecting long and hard on another difficult cross-border campaign – but a puff of white smoke above a rickety old training base in West London finally gave the Premiership fraternity a reason to celebrate. Wasps, a great club at serious risk of collapse, are financially stable for the first time in years.
The two-time Heineken Cup champions formally announced that Derek Richardson, an Irish businessman who made his pile in the insurance market, was the new principal shareholder of the club, with a fresh board of directors to be appointed in the coming weeks. Richardson’s name had been doing the rounds since January, but confirmation was a clear signal that Wasps’ outstanding issues – most notably with the tax authorities, with whom they have a history of difficulties – had finally been addressed. “We start with a clean slate,” said a club official.
As recently as a year ago, Wasps were threatened on all fronts. Players did not know whether they would be paid on time, the new rugby director David Young was in no position to strengthen the squad in the way he had imagined when he was appointed, and relegation loomed. As the England lock Joe Launchbury, one of the young academy products charged with keeping the club in the Premiership, told this newspaper a few weeks ago: “I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that if we’d gone down, the club would have struggled to remain in existence.”
Now, the mood has changed – much to the delight of the people running the Premiership, who could ill afford to lose one of the most successful clubs of the professional era. One of Launchbury’s fellow tyros, the outstanding back Elliot Daly, has signed a new long-term contract and senior officials are talking about moving from Adams Park, the stadium they share with Wycombe Wanderers, to a ground of their own, although plans are very much in their infancy.
Richardson met the players at their current base in Acton and told them that new, improved training facilities were near the top of his agenda, along with a drive to make the club a sustainable business long in to the future. “I believe we have a fantastic opportunity to move forward on and off the pitch,” he said. “I see my involvement as a big responsibility and this is a long-term challenge, which I want to meet head-on. The club has been through some tough times, but I am confident with the right management and commercial focus, new investment can really invigorate everything about it.”
In Wales, two more internationals – the Cardiff Blues centre Jamie Roberts and the flanker Dan Lydiate – are expected to confirm moves to the Parisian club Racing Metro next season. The Scarlets wing George North agreed terms with Northampton earlier this week.