King's deadly kicking offers hope for Wasps

Heineken Cup: Inconsistent Londoners must put loss of injured Dallaglio behind them for today's daunting visit to Stade Francais
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The Independent Online

Given the choice, Wasps would not be going within a million miles of Stade Jean Bouin this afternoon, even if Lawrence Dallaglio were with them in body as well as spirit. There is a long and blood-curdling history of English teams having their rear ends kicked in this unprepossessing little corner of south-west Paris - the Parc des Princes is right next door - and those who travel across the Channel always do so with an acute sense of foreboding.

Given the choice, Wasps would not be going within a million miles of Stade Jean Bouin this afternoon, even if Lawrence Dallaglio were with them in body as well as spirit. There is a long and blood-curdling history of English teams having their rear ends kicked in this unprepossessing little corner of south-west Paris - the Parc des Princes is right next door - and those who travel across the Channel always do so with an acute sense of foreboding.

The absence of Dallaglio means that the Londoners are not only travelling, but travelling light. The portents are not good. The Frenchmen have never even looked like losing a Heineken Cup match in their own bullring: in eight home matches played since they first qualified for the élite competition in 1998-99, they have rattled up a seriously disconcerting total of 416 points. The average result of a European game is 52-14 - not half bad, considering that the visitors have included Leicester, Llanelli and Pontypridd, three sides with solid track records of European achievement. And Wasps are turning up without the totemic Dallaglio to help man the barricades. Best of luck, chaps. Would you prefer flowers or chocolates?

Still, it could be worse. Alex King, by some distance the most influential Wasp in the nest when "Big Lol" is confined to the treatment table, might easily have been missing as well. Summer surgery on a ravaged shoulder ensured that he would be one of the few front-line professionals to enjoy a decent pre-season's rest and recuperation, but there was no guarantee that he would return in time for the Heineken Cup pool stage. "I can't tell you how brilliant it felt to have a long break," he said this week. "No player wants to be injured, but it can be a blessing in disguise in this day and age. I promised myself that I wouldn't come back before I was right, and I didn't. Consequently, I feel completely ready for the challenges ahead."

And what challenges they are. Wasps' heavy defeat at Swansea in the opening round of Heineken Cup matches left them off the qualification pace, and Swansea's subsequent victory over Stade Français in a traditional St Helen's deluge meant that the Londoners' goose was two-thirds cooked before they had played a home match.

Unless they win at least one of their back-to-back contests with the Parisians - the return takes place at Loftus Road tomorrow week - the big prize will have passed them by for another season. In fact, Nigel Melville, the Wasps coach, fears that a 50-50 split over the next eight days might prove insufficient. "Anything less than a draw in Paris will make it almost impossible for us to reach the latter stages of the tournament," he pronounced, bleakly.

If King, as subtle and sophisticated an outside-half now plying his trade in the English Premiership, is taking a more positive line, it is because there is very little point in his doing otherwise. "We're under no illusions about this: we have the utmost respect for Stade Français," he acknowledged. "But at the same time, it's not as if we don't know exactly what we have to do, both this week and next. These are cup finals we're talking about here, must-win matches where defeat would leave us with nowhere to go.

"If we do things right - and that means being absolutely on top of things in all the fundamentals, like the scrums and line-outs and re-starts - we can make it happen for ourselves. The fact that Saracens, whom we've beaten in the Premiership this season, were able to get a Heineken Cup result in a place like Toulouse gives us a degree of confidence."

Confidence is everything at this level of rugby, and it can be derived from various sources at various times. For instance, the first 15 minutes or so this afternoon will be tight-five territory: if the likes of Simon Shaw and Darren Molloy can establish some sort of parity at the coalface, King and his threequarters will feel a whole lot better about taking the game to the French. And at some point, King himself will be required to do his bit.

Having watched another artist of a stand-off, Arwel Thomas, break the Stade Français stranglehold with a flurry of divine drop goals at St Helen's, he is keen to try something similar.

"Defences are so strong at the moment, and missed tackles are so rare, that the drop goal is becoming an increasingly important part of the outside-half's armoury," explained Thomas after his heroics in the wind and rain last weekend. King buys into the same argument. "We saw in last year's World Cup how drop goals can swing a tight game," he said. "I don't suppose England will forget Jannie de Beer in a hurry, and I don't suppose Stade Français will forget Arwel. It's absolutely heartbreaking for the opposition when the drops start flying over, not just because the scoreboard keeps turning against them but because this form of attack is almost impossible to defend against. It's the helplessness that really hurts.

"I practise my drops all the time, but it's terribly difficult to recreate a game situation on the training ground. The drop goal is a pressure thing, a split-second skill; you can spend hours working on your positioning and preparing your strategy, but it all comes down to instinct and alertness in the end. It takes some doing to hit 30-metre drops with a high degree of accuracy, and it's even more difficult to put them over from the right touchline or from half-way, as Arwel did last week. At the same time, an outside-half needs to master the technique as best he can. I certainly wouldn't agree with those who argue for a reduction in the value of the drop goal. It's one of the most difficult rugby skills of them all."

Difficult, yes, but nowhere near as challenging as attempting to solve the mystery of Wasps' flagrant inconsistency. The Londoners' inability to string together two half-decent performances is fast becoming an extremely unfunny joke: in the 21 days from 17 September to 7 October, Melville's charges put 43 points past Gloucester, leaked 59 at Newcastle, planted 53 on Northampton and conceded 54 at St Helen's. It is enough to put any coach in therapy, and it is not doing much for King's state of mind, either. "Let's just say it's a little frustrating," admitted the stand-off through gritted teeth.

"It's not as though we're unaware of the problem, but it's not the kind of issue where answers stare you straight in the face, is it? If we were starting poorly, we would have something to address, but the game at Swansea was pretty tight early on. All you can do is concentrate on the basics, get the nuts and bolts right and then develop your game from there. We'll certainly have to build from a broad base in Paris and that will take a massive effort, initially from the pack but ultimately from all of us. We've won in France before, so we know what it takes. But knowing and delivering are two different things. This is a big, big test for us."

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