Wasps profit from a new corporate identity

Paul Trow finds Melville's vision of the professional world is paying off
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The Independent Online
Crystal-Ball gazers were hardly enthusiastic about Wasps at the start of the season, and who could blame them. While most of their rivals had stocked up on new blood, the London club's sole high-profile signing, Va'aiga Tuigamala, was due back in rugby league just after Christmas.

The honours were expected to be monopolised by Bath and Leicester as usual with the big spenders, Harlequins and Saracens, in closest attendance. Wasps seemed destined for mid-table anonymity despite being bought by Chris Wright, merging with Queen's Park Rangers and switching to Loftus Road.

But the pundits had reckoned without perhaps the shrewdest transfer of all, the deal which brought Nigel Melville back to the club as director of rugby.

The former England captain and scrum-half, now 36, had played for Wasps during the 1980s before successfully launching his coaching career with modest Otley.

Now, eight months after Melville's move from Yorkshire, Wasps not only lead Courage League One by two points, but they have a virile young team who should blossom handsomely over the next few years.

Gareth Rees, the club's long-serving fly-half turned fullback, is quick to pinpoint the role of his erstwhile half-back partner in this resurgence. "Nigel brought the best of both worlds to the club,"said the 29-year-old Canadian. "He played in the amateur era and yet he also had a corporate outlook. He is respected for what he has done on the field and he is smart enough to realise that no one is bigger than the whole club."

Corporate awareness has indeed been central to Melville's thinking. "The new laws have created a fluid game which is commercially more attractive," he said. "At Loftus Road we're averaging crowds of 7,500 compared with a third of that last season at Sudbury. The players have responded well to the challenge of professionalism. They realise there's a commercial importance in what they do and how they play.

"What's the secret of our success? We keep winning every week. Seriously, though, we get on with the job. It's a team sport and our players have committed themselves to the club. We want to get into Europe again next year and do better than this year, so we keep working hard to improve. In that respect, Tuigamala was a great help both on and off the field."

The former All Black may have gone, first back to Wigan and then on to Newcastle, but his involvement was an essential part of creating a professional culture. "Discipline has really tightened up," said Rees. "Nigel allocates penalty points each time you're late for training. In the old days, you'd be fined and the money would go into a beer fund. If you get too many points now, though, you lose your match fee. We're in a business now."

Business is also about investment for the future. "The average age of our backs is 24 and the forwards aren't much older which means that next year they will be even better," said Melville. "We're trying to develop from within the club. I like young players who are ambitious - that's the way ahead. If you sign a big star he's got to be fitted in. Individual players are not the answer in a team sport - they take time to gel with their team-mates. I don't want to provide people with pension funds once they've finished their international careers.

"We're one of the few clubs with a development side and we have academy sessions on Wednesday nights for local youngsters. Everyone here is a potential international. Nick Greenstock is nearly there and the half- backs, Alex King and Andy Gomarsall, should play for England as a pair - they complement each other."

However, it comes as a slight surprise that Melville is relaxed about Wasps' captain Lawrence Dallaglio not being given the England job when Will Carling stepped down. "Lawrence has matured this season. He's improved a lot as a skipper since Jack Rowell opted for Phil de Glanville so perhaps he wasn't quite ready for it at the time."

And should Rowell resign at the end of the season, as has been threatened, then England could surely do worse than consider Melville as a possible successor. Certainly, he is comfortable with the scientific approach which now dominates the sport at the highest level.

"At Wasps, we use psychology, nutrition, computer and video analysis. It's not as detailed as the NFL, thank God - we don't want the game to go that far. But we analyse what went wrong on computer. We look at our defeats in more detail than our wins - you learn far more when you lose - and we do a lot of one-on-one coaching with the players, which was never really done before.

"We have eight league matches to play this season and none of them are going to be easy. We visit Leicester in a couple of weeks - that will be tough - but so will our games against sides battling relegation." As this plain-speaking Yorkshireman clearly recognises, it is the oval ball which matters, not the crystal ball.

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