Wright ready to face the test of faith

Wasps' dire start will not bring the end of Melville. Hugh Godwin hears the boss is still a believer
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The Independent Online

Rumours of Nigel Melville's imminent departure from Wasps have, it appears, been greatly exaggerated. Chris Wright, the chairman and principal owner of the Zurich Premiership's bottom club, last week dismissed the notion of an ultimatum to his director of rugby to produce results, and spoke instead of working with Melville to plot an upward course.

Wasps are unexpected stragglers after finishing as runners-up to Leicester in last season's Premiership. A horrendous run of injuries, led by the long-term absence of their captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, has also contributed to a damaging two defeats out of two in the Heineken Cup. Today, Wasps go to Bristol in the Premiership, a week on from a home loss against London Irish, after which Melville was quoted as saying: "No points by November means no job. The vultures have been circling."

Wright was having none of that, mounting as sterling a defence of Melville as is possible after six straight defeats. "The vultures circling were just the press, not me," Wright said. "You can't issue ultimatums, everybody's got to pull together. We talk a lot, and you tend to talk more at times like this."

Wright oversaw five changes of manager in five years at his other sporting interest, Queen's Park Rangers, but he said: "The coach or manager often gets asked to leave when he is incapable of motivating the players. I don't think that's the case with Nigel. The squad are as one."

At any one time this season, Wasps have been without at least six first choice players, but Wright says Dallaglio's absence until at least January is hurting the most. "If Lawrence was there, we wouldn't be where we are now," Wright said. "We miss his motivational ability as much as his playing ability, and he is an absolutely world-class player. I met with Nigel, and we had a bit of a post-mortem, but there's not much I can do. I can't go on the pitch, and I don't know enough about rugby to do anything even if I wanted to."

He has received letters of support for Melville, and of criticism. "You get some of both," Wright said. "When things are going well, fans complain about the quality of beer, or cups of tea. When things are going badly, they complain about players and the make-up of the team."

Wright was one of the first entrepreneurs – his main line of business is the Chrysalis Media Group – to pile into rugby when the sport went open in 1995, and he appointed Melville, the Yorkshire-born, spiky former Wasps scrum-half and England captain, as director of rugby.

Success came quickly, and often. Wasps won the league in 1997, under Dallaglio's captaincy, and added the cup in 1999 and 2000. Only a contentious refereeing decision at Northampton stood between them and a Heineken Cup semi-final in 2000, although otherwise their record in Europe has been modest.

Melville has been prominent in seeing Wasps through a difficult period of transition. The club have been awarded one of the first five England Rugby Academy licences, and their west London training ground also accommodates mini-rugby, two women's teams, and two amateur sides. His message in pre-season, as he announced a 30-man squad including 27 Englishmen, was "evolution, not revolution". But if a spot of the latter is what is needed, Wright will not act rashly, or alone, according to fellow members of the six-man board of London Wasps Holdings Ltd.

For 25 years, Ivor Montlake was honorary secretary of Wasps FC, the amateur club who now own 35 per cent of the professional outfit. His successor, Graham Wynde, and Bob Collier, another stalwart Wasp, are also on the board. "Chris chairs the board," said Montlake. "Figuratively and actually, he is the leader. In as much as any decision needed to be made, he could in theory make it alone. In practice, it would not fit in with the Wasps ethos. Nigel's on a long-term contract. He's part of the furniture."

Melville has attempted to plug the injury gaps by signing Ian Jones, the great All Black, and Stuart Abbott, an unheralded South African centre. Rob Henderson, the Lions centre, left for Munster, although, ironically, he too is injured. This week, Martin Offiah, rugby league legend and some-time union wing, joined on a month's loan. Offiah is great friends with Shaun Edwards, appointed Wasps' defensive coach in the summer.

The injury list is gradually shortening, but now England are playing four internationals in six weeks, which will remove key Wasps players from four Premiership matches, starting with Phil Greening and Simon Shaw today. Trevor Leota, the hooker, is debating whether to join Samoa's European tour in November.

The pressure on Melville showed last Sunday when he angrily remonstrated with a touch judge. "I can't remember too much about all the games we've won," he has said. "But I can remember every minute of every game we've lost." Wright was out of town, but watched on television, downing the best part of a bottle of red wine in the process. Did it soften the blow? "No," he said. "The team that finished last week will have to perform at Bristol. They're good enough to do it, if things go right for them."