Wasps no longer the fall guys

the inside track from coach Nigel Melville, whose side could clinch the Courage League today
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The Independent Online
It would occur twice a season, regular as clockwork. Gareth Chilcott, the hired hitman of Bath's front-row union, would stretch out in the corner of the training ground dressing-room, crack his knuckles one by one with a sharp, staccato snap and lick his lips at the thought of the forthcoming crunch match with Wasps. "I love swattin' Waspies," he would growl, his West Country burr darkening with each syllable. "Waspies were put on this earth to be swatted."

Along with the rest of the English rugby fraternity, Chilcott must now be acutely and uncomfortably aware that Wasps are no longer a swattable commodity; indeed, were the mighty Cooch to swing a hairy forearm at any of the 1997 vintage, he would connect with nothing more substantial than thin air. Quick-witted, elusive and engagingly idiosyncratic, Lawrence Dallaglio's north London outfit are on the verge of completing the sting of the decade.

If they top and tail their championship bid by avoiding defeat at Northampton this afternoon, Wasps will ram a thousand different mocking punchlines straight back down the throats from which they issued forth. Cast your minds back to last September and you will recall the cacophony of contempt surrounding the new signings at Sudbury. Andy Reed? Too soft. Gareth Rees? Too fat. Alex King? Glorified student. Chris Sheasby? Glorified yuppie. Who's in charge there, for heaven's sake? Fred Karno? Well no, actually. Try Nigel Melville instead.

Remember him? Eighties England scrum-half, pace to burn, pass like a tracer bullet, plenty of grey matter up top. A hard nut, too. Yorkshire grit coming out of his ears. The cleverest signing of the lot, according to the Sudbury cog-noscenti.

And so it has proved. Quietly, calmly, cagily, Melville has pieced together an oddball troop of bit-part actors and moulded them into a precision outfit capable of baffling the best with the most spectacular variety show in town. As recently as a fortnight ago, sound judges were unwilling to accept the evidence before their eyes - "They're not good enough to win the title, simple as that," said Richard Hill of Gloucester memorably - but by four this afternoon, opinion may well have been rendered obsolete by hard, indisputable fact.

Melville won 13 caps (an appropriate number, given his many and varied injury misfortunes) as a Wasp between 1984 and 1988 before taking the Pennine Way to Otley as player-coach. He did not pitch up again at Sudbury until Christmas 1995, by which time his old club had lost the Andrew-Ryan- Bates triumvirate to Newcastle and were struggling to pick a route through the internal chaos that broke out as a consequence. Half a season, and a tough job interview later, he was installed as director of rugby.

"After the business with Rob and the rest, the priority was to hang on to the talent left to us, get some signatures on contracts and build from there. I'm not sure we could have stood another rash of defections but ironically enough, all the departures in the autumn of 1995 seemed to persuade the predators that there was no more flesh to strip away, that the meat had gone from the bones.

"So we were able to fall back on familiar faces, the Matt Greenwoods and Buster Whites. We knew we had good youngsters on their way through - Darren Molloy and Will Green, for instance - and when it came to recruitment, we had very clear ideas on who and what was needed. And you have to say that Rees, King, Sheasby and the rest have punched their weight.

"People criticised our recruitment in the front-five area but you have to remember that tight forwards of the very first rank - the Martin Johnsons of this world - simply weren't available. They were either contracted up to the eyeballs here or playing Super 12 down south and I wasn't prepared to pay daft money for second best. The men we did pull in, like Reed and Simon Mitchell, have played some of their best rugby for us. You can't ask much more of anyone."

Quite rightly, Melville regards the decision to shift all but the lowliest of home games to Chris Wright's Loftus Road as a step of enormous significance. The quality of the Queen's Park Rangers playing surface has not only helped the mule-like Rees kick goals from every conceivable angle and distance, but has also encouraged the high-octane running game instigated by the visionary King at stand-off.

Yet the hard work continues to be undertaken at bumpy, down-at-heel Sudbury, where Melville and his lieutenants spend countless hours rehearsing and refining an ingenious game plan that enables Wasps to both live on the edge and live within their means at one and the same time. Rob Smith, the coach, and Pat Fox, a fitness consultant from New Zealand who, impressively enough, cut his teeth with the great Auckland side of the late Eighties, are members of the inner sanctum along with the ubiquitous Dallaglio.

"Rob and I have similar views on how the game should be played, of the possibilities that present themselves to a young, fit and ambitious side," says Melville. "He really is an exceptional coach and his recent involvement with the England Under-21s squad suggests that he is starting to receive the recognition he deserves. It seems to me that in the new commercial age, we need to develop a style of rugby that is both watchable and successful. Rob has been at the very heart of our move towards achieving that balance.

"And Lawrence? He's been enormous. It's easy to forget that he is still only 24, but his youth is a huge asset because instead of being seen as an elder statesman, he commands the respect of his peer group. The most striking aspect of this team is the wonderful atmosphere generated in the dressing-room and when you boil everything down to its component parts, that atmosphere has carried us through some pretty tight contests.

"Both Rob and I believe we can take this side further. We are one third of the way through a three-year development plan in terms of fitness and skill levels and if we can recruit carefully once again to bolster areas of questionable strength, there is no earthly reason why we shouldn't continue to set new standards of attacking rugby."