How the salary cap will affect us, and everyone else

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Wasps’ success over the last few years was completely predictable, and sadly, so are the difficulties they are facing now. They are both intrinsically related to the salary cap.

When Derek Richardson came on board with the financial support he was willing to bring it was immediately clear that we could dramatically improve the quality of our squad over a few years.  As contracts expired, and players retired they were replaced with better, more expansive players.

A Sprinkling of Stardust

We brought in the likes of Charles Piutau, George Smith, Willie le Roux, and Kurtley Beale.  They dragged the rest of the squad kicking and screaming up the table and a lot of the existing squad put their hands up and showed that they too were of a similar class.  Others didn’t, and moved on.

We moved from scrapping to avoid relegation to extra time in the premiership final in the space of a few years.  The same few years where we moved from filling the teamsheets with the players we could get for the money we had, to filling the team with the best players money could buy.

It’s no surprise that hitting the limits of the salary cap from being one of the poorest teams in the league had such a big success.  But the downside of that was that all of our players were suddenly part of a majorly successful team.  They not only deserved more money, but were massively more visible.

Suddenly earning £500k a year at Wasps wasn’t unthinkable.  It was perfectly possible.

However the cap means that we have no chance of retaining all the players that brought us that success.

That means we are going to lose players we’d rather keep.  And disappointingly other teams.  Those teams we see as our direct rivals are going to gain those same players.

The Direct Effect of our Success

In practice what this means is that the level of talent we brought in to the premiership and developed from our own academy is going to disperse across the rest of the teams.  And it isn’t just us this is going to happen to.

In fact you could argue that this is exactly the point of the cap.  It doesn’t just exist to stop one or two teams buying all the stars.  We know that doesn’t work – look at what happened to London Welsh – It is designed to force talent to disperse. It won’t just make the league more competitive by reducing the ability of the best teams, but by increasing the abilities of the worst (currently) teams.

This is why Nick Eastwood talked about Dai planning for the next two years.  It’s also why McCall was calling for the abolition of the cap a year or two ago.  He could see this coming and it’s going to affect Sarries and Exeter as much as it does us at Wasps.

I think there will be another unforeseen effect of the cap though.

An Unforseen Effect of the Salary Cap

The growing sponsorship money, and the growing popularity of rugby with the public at large has caused an exponential rise in wages. Five years ago the idea of a player earning £700k a year was laughable.  Now there are several who are looking at that sort of money.  And £500k is well within reach for a multi capped international.

That is exactly what is forcing teams to let players go that they’d rather keep. But it is also forcing them to look to develop their own players.  Whether they are coming through their academy, being brought up from Championship teams, or more worryingly tempted from poorer countries by the big money on offer.  The Pacific islands are prime territory for the Southern Hemisphere nations to recruit from.  But less so for the Northern teams.  That will change.

The cap will even out talent across the premiership.  But it will also damage the nations who in rugby terms are still “developing”. More and more talented youngsters will be tempted away to try for the massive salaries that exist.  But in a somewhat ironic twist those salaries may well become rarer and rarer.

If we look at a senior squad size of 40, the current salary cap of £7M means that if we exclude two players it leaves £184,000 per person. Obviously there are allowances for academy players, and other creative ways to adjust the cap, but for every one player at £500k that leaves two other players with nothing at all.  Or every player losing several thousand.

The Possible End Result

One of two things will happen.

Either the cap will go. The teams with money to spend will eventually refuse to carry on bringing in or developing players they are not able to keep.

Or the wages of players will be driven down.

My personal opinion is that the cap will eventually become irrelevant.  There are those who argue it already is.  The regulations are vague enough that any good lawyer can argue around them.  As we found out recently.  And the idea of ring fencing the premiership will largely replace the functions of the cap.  If the teams at the bottom end of the league can’t be relegated and suffer the massive financial penalties associated with that, then what does it matter if some teams spend more than others?

However before all the dust settles and we actually find out how it will play out in the long term we will have to deal with the mess it causes.

And that’s going to hurt Wasps more than most.

What do you think?  Discuss it on our forums here.


The times they are a’changing

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Once a wasp

An End of Season Review

My plan was to start this article with something pithy about how the pain of not making it to the finals of the Premiership Play Offs had faded and it was now I could start to be a bit more objective about the season.  But the more I thought on it, the more I realised there wasn’t really any pain at all.  I’d never actually expected us to make it to the finals, never mind win them.

This entire season has felt a little bit of a let down after coming so close the year before.  It’s been a season of unfulfilled promise, a season of missed potential, and a season, ultimately, of resigned disappointment.

I’ve spent a while thinking about it, and it occurred to me that there was a perfect metaphor for our performance right in front of me.

Not a Coincidence

Danny CiprianiThe way Wasps have performed for the last year has been an almost exact analogue for the career of Danny Cipriani.

Undeniable brilliance, tempered with basic failure.  Constant pushing at the boundaries of what is possible while at the same time failing to do some of the simplest of things at all.  Excitement, but ultimately disappointment.

It is no secret that Wasps rely on natural ability, that we have a whole raft of players who can turn a game around in a moment by an act of sheer magic.  Cipriani more so than anyone else.

I remember sitting in the stands at Adams Park watching him as a new player, somehow he managed to be both astonishingly good, and yet still somehow there was something not quite sitting right about him.

A New Player

When he re-signed for Wasps two years ago I was pleased that we had the chance to see such brilliance again, but I was also a little concerned that perhaps nothing would have changed.  That the young prodigy who didn’t see anything wrong with heading out to a nightclub to drop something off with a friend in the middle of the night before his first England cap was the player we were going to get.  The man who was clever enough to know how brilliant he was and always try to be leading the discussion in training to the point where other, equally brilliant players on his own team were happy to KO him in training.

I don’t think he is as arrogant as he was when he was younger.  But ultimately he is still the same person.

So that’s why I’m not sad he’s leaving.

I think Eddie Jones hit the nail on the head when he said that Danny could never be in the team if he wasn’t number 1.  He didn’t mean if he wasn’t first choice at 10, he meant that Danny does things his own way.  From the way he manages his own time, to the way he runs his own drills in training, to the way he constantly questions the decisions of his coaches  And that is never going to be the case in a tier one international team

Ultimately Optimistic

Lima SopoagaI also don’t think that it is a coincidence that our defence, which has been an issue for so long has suffered while he has been with us.  To the point where our defence coach upped and left.  The more the team has coalesced around Cipriani and what he does so well, the worse we have got at everything else.

And that is both why I never expected us to win anything in the playoffs, but more importantly it is why I am so optimistic about the next season.

Lima Sopoaga is a natural talent on the rugby field.  He is strong, powerful, fast, fearless, and has a vision to match.  He is also a team player of the highest level.  He might not have moments of utter magic like Cipriani, but his ability to act as the playmaker in a team that succeeds at everything is far and away above Danny’s.

I genuinely wish Danny all the best for the future, I hope he does well at Gloucester, and I hope he gets his chance to show what he can do on the stage of international rugby.  But I doubt he will ever be anything more than a good fringe player who never fulfilled his potential.

Wasps on the other hand have shown they have what it takes to succeed.  They have a core of players who want to play for each other, and trust each other to do the right thing.  They have individuals with the ability to change the game in a moment – Wade, Le Roux, Daly, Willis, Launchbury, Young, and more besides.  And in Sopoaga they have an opportunity to build a stable platform on which to shine.  We’ve made it to the playoffs three years in a row, we’ve made it to the final in one of those, and yet we haven’t quite had what it takes to reach the very top.

I honestly believe that will be different next season.

A Cinderella Story

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Derek Richardson

Derek Richardson

I’m hurting right now, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

I’d be willing to bet that the players are hurting a good deal more than me, and the coaches too. I actually can’t think of much worse ways to lose a game as important as that one than by a penalty in the dying moments of extra time.

In some ways I’d rather we put up a valiant fight but were outclassed. But to have played as well as we did, for the game to be as close as it was, and to have lead for a large part of it only to have it snatched away by what feels like a toss of a coin really burns.

That doesn’t mean I begrudge Exeter their win. They have played really well all season, and there has literally been almost nothing between us all season. We finished on the same points in first and second, and only tries scored put us in first. One team had to win, and as you will no doubt have read many times in the rugby press already Exeter’s story is a rags to riches fairytale that makes the perfect story. It is a tale of the plucky underdogs winning the biggest prize of all thanks to good teamwork and brilliant coaching.

But that fails to take account of the fact that Wasps’ story is similar. We weren’t the plucky winner of the Championship promoted to the big league but fully expected to go straight back down that somehow managed to survive, rebuild, strengthen, and eventually beat the best in the world. But Wasps are a team that had no right to survive.

We were saved from relegation by one tackle. One man’s premature celebration, coupled with another man’s desparate attempt to help his team stay up – and a man who was famed for never really tackling at that – kept Wasps in the Premiership when they should really have gone down.

And if Wasps had been relegated they likely wouldn’t have survived.

The team was bankrupt. David “Dai” Young was forced to buy supplies from his own pocket, and somehow not only managed to keep the platers motivated, but also managed to persuade new players to sign for the club. It’s not a secret that I credit him with saving the club from its darkest hours, but there is another man who needs to be mentioned.

Wasps were a team on the edge, unwanted tenants of a football club, playing in a small stadium at the end of an industrial estate. A team fielding a mixture of untested academy prospects alongside retired players who had agreed to put on the kit to sit on the bench so we could field a full team. A team with no prospects, no long term owner, and no way to survive. The only perceivable future was a gradual sink through the leagues until finally vanishing altogether.

And then the unthinkable happened.

The club was bought, lock stock and barrel by a successful businessman. But not just any old businessman, a man who had not only made himself an awful lot of money, but a man who was a genuine rugby fan. A man who recognised the heritage, the potential, and the possibilities in the team.

Derek Richardson came on board when we needed a saviour most, and whilst it seems a little hyperbolic to use that word it is the most appropriate one I can come up with.

Within no time at all Wasps had some security. We weren’t relegation prospects any more, and Dai could keep his money and not have to buy supplies for the team. Retired players could watch the team from the stands instead of the bench, and new players started to come in.

Then, seemingly out of the blue Derek’s Wasps bought an immense arena two hours up the road and the team moved away from Adams Park.

I won’t lie, I thought it was a mistake. I had grown to love Adams Park, and the Ricoh was too far away for me to get to regularly, but I’m a big enough man to admit I was wrong.

I thought it was a cynical move to make some fast money and that the club would end up a poor second to the financial interests of an already rich man.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

No-one who saw Derek celebrating Daly’s try yesterday could believe that he doesn’t really care. He is a man with a real passion for rugby, and he actually cares about the club, the players, and the supporters. Not long ago my youngest son went into remission after a year’s treatment for a rare form of Cancer. I’d never met Derek, or even had any reason to speak to him, but he rang me at home to offer his congratulations and to tell me to let him know if I brought my son to the Ricoh so he could make sure we got to meet the players and made it as special a day as possible.

So whilst Exeter’s Cinderella story is complete. They’ve gone from plucky losers to ultimate winners. Ours is even more complete too. Winning the Premiership would have been the icing on the cake, but the fact is that we were seconds away from vanishing, and now we are topping the league, playing in the biggest stadium in the Premiership with record crowds, we are playing exciting, entertaining rugby, and we are genuinely looking to the future without apprehension.

And that is down to one man.

Thanks Derek, we owe you one.

An open letter to Saracens’ Fans

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Dear Saracens fans

Firstly congratulations on your stunning victory last weekend. It was great to see not only an English team win the European Champions cup, but also to see a team that has almost become a force of nature in full flow.

You thoroughly deserved the win, and the fact that it was a double makes it even more impressive.

And that leads me to the point of this missive.

Enjoy it. You are clearly one of the best teams in the world right now, you are accumulating silverware at a quite terrifying rate and it is well deserved. Your players are great, and they play together as a team so well that they all look even better than they would anywhere else. Don’t let anyone tell you you don’t deserve the plaudits you are getting. You really do.

But be aware that it is unlikely to last forever. Ten years ago we were where you are now. Celebrating yet more silverware, and feeling that it was ours by right.

In some ways it was, but in the same way the rapid slide to the bottom of the table, to be saved from relegation by a tackle from a man reknowned for never tacking was ours by right. That is just the way rugby is.

Some people, fans of other teams, learned to hate us back then when we were at the top. For some reason that seems to be the way of things. I’m guessing you have noticed that. People run your team down for being successful, and you down for supporting them. For some folk that will never change. Some people still hate Wasps and for no reason other than we beat them 10 years ago.

You’re also bearing the brunt of the salary cap debacle. Whatever you think of that, whether you believe your team was guilty or not it isn’t going to go away. It just becomes part of who you are. Much like Quins and “Bloodgate” and us with our uncontested scrums. It isn’t fun, but it is part of the team identity. But that is what being a rugby fan is all about, taking the rough with the smooth, experiencing the heartache of the lows, and the joy of the highs, as well as the guilt of knowing that perhaps your team weren’t as innocent as you’d want them to be.

So enjoy it, try to ignore the odd glitch along the way. You had the Valentine’s Day massacre last year (still one of my favourite all time games), but find any long term Wasps’ fan and watch their face when you say “Pertemps Bees” and you’ll know that you’re not alone in having the odd unexpected failure when you are otherwise on the top of the world.

I have no idea whether you will stay at the top of years, or whether this is the beginning of the end for you, but either way I hope that we’ll see you in the finals at Twickenham and that we spoil your party, just like we did for Leicester all those years ago.

Domestic rugby is in a great place right now, and that is due, at least in part, to you. We wouldn’t have been able to have the resurgence we have had if it wasn’t for you.

So thank you.

Well done for winning yet another cup, and hopefully see you in a few weeks.

Vespula Vulgaris

The Downside of Having Kurtley Beale in Wasps’ Squad

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Kurtley Beale’s Influence

Kurtley Beale

Kurtley Beale – Once a Wasp?

Kurtley Beale is regarded as one of the best players in the world, and despite his recent injury that could easily have ended his career, it is easy to see why.

He manages to do incredible things on the rugby pitch.  Not just the lines he picks, the spaces he sees, but also the way he uses the ball and does things no-one else would consider.

It is this very ability that set up Wasps first try against Bristol this weekend.

Simpson lifts the ball quickly from a ruck and passes it straight to Kurtley Beale.  Beale takes a fraction of a second to look, and makes the decision to run.  He can see he has support if he needs it, Phil Swainston is the next man in the line, and so if Beale goes down he knows he has a prop with him to prevent the turnover.  He drops his weight and runs an intersecting line towards the Bristol defence.

Bristol however have got their confidence up after scoring earlier, and know the threat Kurtley Beale presents so double tackle him.  And this is where the magic happens.

Beale can clearly see he is not going to make it through the line this time, and so decided to offload.  Somehow he manages to pop an arm out of the mass of limbs surrounding him and without dropping the ball flicks it perfectly into Swainston’s hands.

Kurtley Beale

Swainston spins, and offloads the ball to Bassett exactly as a forward should – back to the tackle, both hands on the ball, and the rest is history.

Lets look at it again from a different angle.

Kurtley Beale

It’s even more impressive from the front.  There is no way anyone whould have the freedom to move the ball around that Beale somehow creates.

And it is exactly this ability that caused the first try for Bristol against us.

When George Smith was with Wasps he not only played brilliantly well, but he also changed the way Wasps played.  He lead both by example, and by directly showing other players how to do the things he did.  It revolutionized our game, and in particular catapulted Thomas Young from being a promising benchwarmer, to a genuine international contender.  Kurtley Beale has done exactly the same thing.  But instead of the rest of the squad picking up on the judgement and wiley cunning of Smith, they are picking up on the astonishing ball skills of Beale.

The problem with that, is that if it goes wrong, it tends to go wrong much more spectacularly than just failing to get a turnover.  Let’s look at that Bristol try again.

Joe Launchbury emulating Kurtley Beale

Joe Launchbury sees the ball is free and snatches it up.  This is one of the things he does better than anyone else in the world.  He seems to simply know by instinct where the ball is and whether he is allowed to take it.  Whether it is in the ruck, defending a maul, or in open play like this.  He spins, and sets off down the field.  The turnover is won and Wasps are on the charge, however when he is tackled, instead of going down and recycling the ball he does a “Beale”.  He spins, and offloads it with one hand to Simpson.  It isn’t a pretty pass, and it’s certainly not up their with Beale’s offloads, but it works.

Simpson passes it immediately to Thompson who is recently back from injury and not only playing very well, but also fighting for his starting place.  He makes some ground before running into the Bristol defence that is starting to creak.  Instead of taking the contact and trusting that his teammates will recycle the ball quickly he too attempts a “Beale”.  But this time it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

Guy Thompson trying a Kurtley Beale style one handed offload

A Bristol player gets a hand to it, somehow manages to avoid being penalised for a definite knock on, and the try is scored.

I have no doubt that Kurtley Beale would have managed the offload, but I also have little doubt that the ball would never had got to Thompson if Launchbury hadn’t also been influenced by Beale in training and on the match field.

It is clear that having a player of Beale’s quality changes the way the team plays.  It inspires people, and lets them see what is possible.  And it is this very style of play, that pushes the boundaries of what is possible on the field that makes Wasps such an amazing team to watch.

I have no doubt that Beale’s presence has not only lifted the team by his skill on the pitch, but also by lifting the skills of every single player in the squad.  That is why he is worth every penny Wasps have spent on getting him here, and it is why Wasps are still top of the table with only a few games to play.

Sadly its also why sometimes players do things that seem silly to those of us sitting and watching.  But let’s just say that Thompson’s crazy one handed offload had worked.  He had Bassett, Daly, and leRoux on his shoulder, with only one defender to beat.  It would have been the sort of try that would have been in his highlight reel for the rest of his career.

So keep trying the one handed offloads, the bizarre running angles, and the dainty chips that fail as often as they succeed.  Because they are what make us special.  And long after Kurtley Beale has left, his legacy will remain in the way we play.

What do you think? Come and discuss it in OUR FORUMS

James Haskell for England Captain

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James Haskell and Hartley talking to Poite

Haskell and Hartley talking to Poite

James Haskell has come in for a lot of stick recently after Romain Poite’s snarky reply to him during last weekend’s International against Italy. I think not only is ti completely unjustified criticism, but he should be being lauded for his actions, not slated.

Unless you’ve spent the last week living in a cave you no doubt know that Italy, under their head coach O’Shea played a very unusual tactic. They refused to commit players to tackle when England had the ball, and by doing so did not create a ruck. The consequence of this was that there was no off-side line and so the Italian players could legally walk around the tackle and disrupt the patterns of the English team.

Whether you think this was a travesty of rugby, or an inspired bit of tactical play by a wiley coach is irrelevant. It was clearly legal, and was equally clearly causing England some serious problems.

What was also obvious was that there had been some sort of discussion beforehand between Italy and Poite. At no point did he look like he even considered penalising the Italian players, and was clearly on the same page as them in their desire to upset the apple cart. It was revealed after the game that there had indeed been a discussion where the tactic was explained and Poite agreed it would be legal if certain criteria were followed. At no point was the England squad party to these discussions.

And so, during the match, when the tactic was in full flow, and Poite was happily letting the Azzuri disrupt the game England were not just on the back foot, but there were playing catch up.

The laws are clear, and I have no doubt that every player on the field understood them, what they did know however was how Poite was enforcing those laws and what criteria he was using to make the distinction between a tackle (no off-side line) and a ruck (a very clear off-side line). The only possible way to find that out was to ask him directly.

And that is exactly what James Haskell did.

He might not have asked in the most efficient way, but he was clearly confused by the way the match was going, and he was very frustrated that what he saw as illegal infringement was being called as legal by the referee. He asked Poite to clarify exactly what the law was.

Instead of answering his question Poite took it upon himself to make a sarcastic remark in reply.

I don’t think anyone should need to remind him that during the game he is the sole arbiter of what is legal and what is not. And part of his job is to communicate that to the players. It is done at set pieces, it is done when one team is under pressure and repeatedly infringing, it is usually done at the breakdown. But not this time.

The conversation went on with James Haskell attempting to get clarification of how close a player had to be to be considered part of a ruck, and whether he could simply drag on Italian player into the tackle to create a ruck. Eventually Poite answered his questions, and the second both sides had the same information the tide turned.

There is more to it that this.

Haskell did exactly what you would expect of an experienced professional rugby player in a frustrating situation. He didn’t take matters into his own hands, he asked for detailed clarification. And when he didn’t get it he asked again until he did.

The most striking thing to me, second only to Poite’s seeming delight in pulling one over the England team, was that it was James Haskell that did the asking.

Haskell isn’t the captain. He isn’t even one of the vice-captains.

He is simply a back rower who has recently returned from injury, that many people say shouldn’t be in the team at all. The actual captain was standing next to him, his mouth shut, not contributing anything at all.

And so this is why I think all England fans should be celebrating James Haskell’s behaviour last weekend.

He saw a problem, he saw that the “leaders” weren’t sorting it, and he did everything in his power to resolve the situation without risking infringing the laws himself.

To my mind he put his had up for the captaincy of the team. Hartley has not been on form recently, and it is supposedly for his leadership he is being retained. Last week he didn’t show any of that at all when it really mattered.

That was left to “The Brand”