Wasps cast wistful eye across great divide

Hugh Godwin finds the London club's resources are wearing thin
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The Independent Online

Wasps went back to school this week. Harrow School, that is, where the autumnal russets and golds provided a splendid if unlikely backdrop to the London club's attempts to revitalise their Heineken Cup campaign.

Wasps went back to school this week. Harrow School, that is, where the autumnal russets and golds provided a splendid if unlikely backdrop to the London club's attempts to revitalise their Heineken Cup campaign.

In their own tale of two cities, Wasps this afternoon complete a double-header with Stade Français of Paris. It was mainly the worst of times last Saturday for Wasps, when two dreadful penalty goal misses by Kenny Logan were sad footnotes to a 40-10 defeat in France. Defeat today would put the quarter-finals out of reach, barring a most unlikely set of results in the remaining pool matches.

Stade Français have rarely travelled well in Europe, so hope springs eternal, but Wasps' director of rugby, Nigel Melville, sounded a cautious note as his team decamped to Harrow with the club's own training pitch waterlogged. "No matter what happens," he said, "we're playing against a team who are good enough to go all the way, and that will do us good."

Melville estimates that the Stade Français squad are on "something like double" his own side's wages, due to the £1.8m salary cap operating in England. "The salary cap has pushed us down a development route rather than buying in players," he said. "That's good for the long term but possibly not in the short term when we are competing against other sides under different rules. We can probably take Stade Français on up front, and in the backs when we are at our best, but we can't take them on in depth."

Swansea, the other team in contention in Pool Two and not exactly dripping gold bars, might contribute something of note to that little debate. What is unarguable is the rotten run of injuries that has blighted Wasps' season. Lawrence Dallaglio and Darren Molloy will again be missing from the pack today, and fly-half Alex King is out with a hip injury.

Rob Henderson, the Ireland centre, will deputise for King with Melville's endorsement: "He is more talented than people give him credit for." Phil Larder, England's defensive coach, has been helping to cut out what Melville calls "very simple missed tackles".

The ruins of Melville's squad are mirrored at Sudbury, where bulldozers roam across what used to be Wasps' first- team pitch. Club owner Chris Wright, whose umbrella group, Loftus Road plc, also includes Queen's Park Rangers FC, has sold off seven and a half acres in return for £9.5m. A development of 110 homes is under way and all that remains for Wasps - at least for the time being - is the clubhouse and a very muddy back pitch. "It's an asset that has been sold and sentimentality doesn't get us anywhere," said Melville. "The game has changed." Do not be misled. Melville, Yorkshire-born but a Wasps stalwart, is acutely aware that you can only sell the family silver once.

Wright, owner of Chrysalis Records, is to Wasps what Max Guazzini, media mogul, is to Stade Français. Except that Guazzini does not publish his balance sheet on the club website. Loftus Road plc recently announced an annual loss of £4.73m (a reduction of £3.63m on the 1998-99 figure), and cash from the Sudbury sale has gone to reduce group borrowings. Guazzini's heavy investment has paid off with two French championships in the last three years after almost a century of nothing at all.

Head-turning sums, it is said, were whispered in the ears of one or two Wasps last week. Europe, though, and Ireland in particular, has been the graveyard of Stade Français' dreams - beaten in Ulster in the semi-finals two years ago, and in Munster in last season's quarters. A fortnight ago they lost at Swansea despite their opponents being reduced to 14 men for more than half the match. "They got mixed into a fight and they're not a fighting side," said Melville.

Nor, Melville was swift to point out, are Wasps, although he has fined two players, Paul Volley and Paul Sampson, "significant sums" after a post-match social in Italy two weeks ago got out of hand. "We encourage the players to be on the edge in training and on the field," said Melville. "They're a close group, so when they fall out they're honest with each other. To their credit, neither player tried to hide anything, or get out of paying for any damage, not that there was any. We had a hearing back here and they've been reminded of their responsibilities."

Much responsibility today, in the absence of Dallaglio, will fall on Joe Worsley's shoulders, with the inexperienced Richie Birkett drafted in alongside him in the back row. Ticket prices of £5 for adults and £1 for children should put a few more bums on Loftus Road seats.

"Rugby is still a game for the players," said Melville. "We run four adult amateur sides, two ladies' sides, Under-21s, a minis' section and six academies around London. That's what Wasps have always been about and we still are."

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