By Rugby World reader Mark Shanahan
Watching Danny Cipriani slot three penalties on Sunday to ensure a win for Wasps over Sarries was bittersweet. It was great to see ‘England’s-next-big-thing’ of two years ago finally rediscovering some semblance of form after two years of wretched injury luck. But each success was a bit of a kick in the teeth knowing that Cips will be plying his trade in Melbourne next season.
I’ve been a Wasps fan since the 70s when I’d get on my Raleigh Chopper and cycle up to Repton Avenue to stand on the railway sleepers and watch Sudbury’s finest slosh through the mud. After leaving school, I didn’t follow the club for about 20 years before being invited to take in a match at Loftus Road a dozen or more years ago. I was rapidly hooked on the professional game: it wasn’t hard as Wasps was a side on the up. For me, the mantle of success passed to my club when Wasps trounced Bath 35-0 on a sunny Sunday in 1999 – and for the next eight years it was a sweet feeling being a Wasps fan. Not only were the trophies piling up, but with the likes of Dallaglio, King, Lewsey and the rest, we were treated to some superb rugby.
Sunday wasn’t superb: it was a workmanlike win achieved by a squad that’s rapidly turning from the Who’s Who of English rugby to a chorus of footsloggers. Of course Dallaglio, Benitez and Lewsey have retired from the game; Flutey and Palmer have moved on. King, Abbot and Waters are but memories. But what worries me is the haemorrhaging of home-grown talent. Ciprini’s off to Aus; Sackey – who started as a junior at Wasps – is off to France. The talk is that Saxons skipper Skivington’s off to Leicester. And these defections come just a season after James Haskell decamped for Paris. No longer is the Wasps brand enough to lure the top talent. No longer, it seems, does the ‘Once a Wasp, always a Wasp’ ethos hold true.
What’s behind it? Well, the stratospheric French salary cap is one reason, but Wasps’ off-field tactics also seem to be weighing a heavy hand. The new owner, Steve Hayes, is not a rugby man. He’s determined to cut the losses he inherited – and that’s no bad thing. But allegedly, he’s more motivated by the potential returns to be made on land deals around Wycombe than on assembling a side capable of reaching Wasps’ recent heights. There’s a flaw to this logic. Hayes may wish to build a 20,000 capacity state of the art stadium, but if Wasps can’t attract or retain star players, there’s no way the club will double its current regular attendance. 8,500 turned up on Sunday to a performance that won’t have converted many irregulars into hardened fans.
If he builds it, will they come?