Wasps manufactured so many bricks when the going was good, they constructed themselves a wall that would have left Hadrian green with envy: two Heineken Cup triumphs, four Premiership titles, a significant presence in the England side, the pick of the world's best coaches... it was quite an edifice in anyone's language. Unfortunately, those bricks were made without straw.
Sustainable success in the professional era requires more than cutting-edge fitness levels, a brilliant rucking technique and Lawrence Dallaglio. It needs committed ownership, generous investment, managerial foresight, a decent place to play and something resembling a crowd – five things conspicuous by their absence as far as the relegation-threatened, administration-haunted Londoners are concerned.
"London rugby needs Wasps," said Conor O'Shea, who, as director of rugby at Harlequins, presides over a club boasting all those crucial building blocks. "Come to that, English rugby needs Wasps. These are difficult times for them but they are too big a club, too great a club, to disappear. I think we all want to see them sort themselves out, because they have so much potential."
And the "but"? There had to be a "but", surely? O'Shea obliged. "Quins were relegated, as were Northampton, and both clubs came back stronger," he continued. "But they owned their own grounds, which gave them massive stability. Wasps aren't in that situation. The question with them – and it's a sad question – is: 'What is there to buy?'"
There is no immediate evidence that the current owner, Steve Hayes, can come up with an answer that might satisfy those interested in taking the club off his hands – always assuming such people exist. It is not, on the face of it, an attractive proposition: over the last couple of years, Wasps have had the tax authorities on their case (there was alarming talk of a winding-up order) and seen ground development plans knocked back by the planning authorities. Hayes has other issues on his mind, having been arrested for alleged computer hacking. And to make matters worse, results at the weekend left them contemplating the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of second-tier rugby next season.
All of which made the after-match reaction of David Young, the poor sod charged with making the best of this mess on the field of play, a masterpiece of honest reflection.
"It doesn't get much tougher, does it?" said the Welshman, who joined from the Cardiff Blues as rugby director last summer. "When people start worrying about whether they'll still have a job in four or five weeks' time, it's hard. I can't deny that this is more serious than we initially thought, but the task of selling the club is down to the board and they're confident it will be done. Our part of the bargain on the playing side is to stay in the Premiership. It's pretty obvious that we'll be more attractive to buyers if we can do that."
It is a mighty big "if". They will not face a side as good as Quins again this season – certainly, they will not find themselves mixing it with a back-row unit as accomplished as Maurie Fa'asavalu, Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter, all of whom were exceptional in Saturday's derby at the Stoop – but teams do not have to be very good to beat Wasps just at the moment. Their next game is at Bath, who are likely to turn in a performance out of sheer embarrassment at their own recent efforts, before a last-round meeting with a resurgent Newcastle, long-time rivals in the relegation dogfight. If they lose both, they may well hear the tolling of the bell.
They will not expire for the want of effort. At the weekend, Young called on a batch of academy players – Elliot Daly, Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones, Billy Vunipola – and fielded others so fresh-faced they appeared likely candidates for the academy once they achieved puberty. Each and every one of them put in a shift, to use the modern jargon, and the boss was proud of them.
"We're asking a lot of these people if I'm being honest," Young admitted. And how were they reacting to regular bulletins on the parlous position of the club? "It's probably the best time for them to go through it," Young said. "They don't have families to support and mortgages to pay."
There were moments when the 20-year-old wing Christian Wade, blindingly quick and blessed with the instinct of the natural finisher, seemed capable of making life a little uncomfortable for Quins: he scored a try in the first-half, racing on to Nicky Robinson's sweet inside pass, and made one in the second half for Ross Filipo by twinkle-toeing his way out of defence. But the hosts scored 17 points of their own in between times, guaranteeing themselves a play-off place in the process, and as Ugo Monye and George Robson had already crossed the Wasps line there was never a realistic prospect of an upset.
Where do the former champions go from here? Back to the market with a "for sale" sign round their necks and a look of puppy-like longing on their faces? This is what comes of a lack of long-term planning, of failing to fix the roof while the sun was shining. Or as Monye, the Lions Test wing, put it: "If you don't have a roof, things are gonna leak." Either way, you get the point.
Harlequins: Tries Monye, Robson, Robshaw, Turner-Hall; Conversions Clegg 2; Penalties Clegg 3. Wasps: Tries Wade, Filipo; Conversions Robinson 2; Penalty Robinson.
Harlequins: M Brown; U Monye (R Chisholm, 64), G Lowe, J Turner-Hall (B Urdapilleta, 70), S Smith; R Clegg, D Care (K Dickson 60); J Marler (M Lambert, 67), R Buchanan (A Croall, 70), J Johnston (W Collier, 58), O Kohn (T Vallejos, 70), G Robson, M Fa'asavalu, C Robshaw (capt; T Guest, 54), N Easter.
Wasps: J Wallace; C Wade, E Daly (T Prydie, 50), R Davis (C Mayor, 12), T Varndell; N Robinson, C Davies; T Payne (S Taulafo, 58-67; 69) T Lindsay (V Korshunov, 52), B Broster (S McIntyre, 58), J Cannon (R Filipo, 50), R Birkett (capt), J Launchbury (V Vunipola, 50), J Poff, S Jones.
Referee: JP Doyle (London).Reuse content