A notice posted at the Wasps squad's training ground in Acton invites family and friends to enjoy "mulled wine and mince pies" before this afternoon's return Heineken Cup match with Llanelli Scarlets. In this rough and ready part of west London, they can scarcely believe their mince pies at the English champions' failings in Europe, and might need the mulled wine to ease the strain on the old jam tart.
In a variation of the old joke about being home before the postcards, Wasps are all but out before the Christmas cards have landed. Not that any one is laughing. Lawrence Dallaglio, the captain, was tamping (as they say in Wales) after the 21-13 defeat in Llanelli last Sunday which followed on from October's losing visit to Edinburgh and draw at home to Toulouse. "One or two of us aren't putting the effort in" and other words to that effect spewed from between Dallaglio's clenched teeth.
A meeting on Tuesday designed to clear the air merely turned it blue. Even Ian McGeechan, as undemonstrative a head coach as exists, acknowledged that names were named and accusing fingers were pointed. "We always do," said McGeechan. "The great thing I've found here is how honest people are. They set standards and they gyp at each other if something's not right. We keep challenging and challenging internally about what we do and how we're doing it."
The surprise at Wasps' almost certain exit at Europe's pool stage for the second season in succession is heightened by their high position in the Premiership - second, with two defeats in nine - and three wins out of three in the Powergen Cup. The first-up blitz defence was as solid as ever at Llanelli but the Scarlets profited on the counter to run in tries by Mark Jones and Dafydd James. One was from a misplaced pass by Alex King, the Wasps fly-half. "You've no right to get out of the group stage," said McGeechan, "you've got to earn the right. We've probably been trying to play too much rugby at times."
Herein lies a possible conflict, for Wasps pride themselves on not playing the route-one rugby inflicted on the Premiership by others. And the problems did not end there. The decision to leave Mark van Gisbergen, the first choice goal-kicker, on the bench at Stradey Park also raised eyebrows. "Alex King had kicked well when Mark was away with England," said McGeechan.
Nor did he concede that it was a mistake to go for goal with a last-minute penalty against Toulouse in High Wycombe when a try was needed to win; instead McGeechan couched the malaise in different terms. "The thing about Toulouse is that they get to 14-13 - and they're the ones who score next. We've been missing the killer score."
Then there were the turnovers at the breakdown: a combination of Simon Easterby's excellence for the Scarlets, the lassitude of a referee allowing players arriving after the tackle to go off their feet, and Wasps' own fumblings. John Davies in the home front row got the better of a Wasps unit entirely revamped during the summer. It was at the same time that McGeechan succeeded Warren Gatland in charge of a team who have won the last three Premiership titles but after capturing the Heineken Cup in 2004 failed to make it out of last season's pool. "One of the reasons they wanted me in was that my attitude to looking after the players was similar to Warren's," said McGeechan.
Though McGeechan more or less accepts that European qualification is beyond Wasps - "statistically it would be hard for us to go through" - he says it is important the club perform well in the remaining games. Scrum-half Eoin Reddan and loosehead prop Alistair McKenzie will start today and other talented youngsters may get a look-in.
McGeechan attends a board meeting every month to give a playing review, and telephones the chairman, Chris Wright, after each match the latter is unable to attend.
How was the call last Sunday night, Ian? "It was OK, yeah, it's fine. He knew we were all disappointed, obviously. We just talked through the game and some of the decisions and how it evolved. The atmosphere around the club is good, which is all the more galling when we have an 80 minutes we're not happy with."Reuse content