Source: David Howlett

Have Wasps got a Future?

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One more knot in a tangled story.

Wasps FC announce they have a plan for a new men’s and women’s club and a stadium. But they fail to explain where the stadium is, and – far more important – how they propose to pay off their colossal debt, alleged to be more than £100 million.

They claim to have acquired the ‘core sustainable finance’. If it equals that huge debt, it makes for a remarkable recovery.

Responses to the news have been largely damning; just one or two of the faithful give a thumbs up. In the men’s case, a central question is where the club should be readmitted to a league programme: near the top or straight back to the bottom? The RFU has been Janus-like in this respect. Saracens were allowed to return to the elite league after a minimum stay in the Championship. In earlier times clubs like Richmond, London Scottish and London Welsh were sent to the bottom rung or simply closed down.

The position of the two branches of the Wasps family, the men and the women, could hardly be more different.

After selling off their long-established ground in Sudbury, north-west London, the men wandered around the country from venue to venue, before finishing up at the then Ricoh Stadium in Coventry. This move led to a furious response from Coventry City FC, who saw their future heavily impeded.

Wasps’ hopes of a new life in a completely new region soon turned to dust. The women returned to their small ground in Acton, west London. The loss of income caused their ousting from the Premier 15s, a matter on which I have written at length.

Whence the Optimism?

To take the women’s case alone: how does the club propose recreating their section? An outstanding squad, led by perhaps the foremost DoR in the country, dispersed to every compass point. Some of their international players now thrive at:

Bristol Bears: Claire Molloy
Exeter: Claudia Macdonald, Cliodhna Moloney, Edel McMahon, Harriet Millar-Mills
Gloucester-Hartpury: Maud Muir, Sam Monaghan
Harlequins: Bryony Cleall, Ciara Cooney, Ellie Kildunne
Leicester Tigers: Amy Cokayne, Celia Quansah, Meg Jones
Loughborough Lightning: Sadia Kabeya
Trailfinders Women: Abby Dow, Abi Burton, Amy Wilson Hardy, Ellie Boatman, Emma Uren, Liz Crake, Rowena Burnfield, plus the afore-mentioned coach, Giselle Mather

With a little help even I might be able to manufacture a decent team out of that line-up.

But the policy-making behind Wasps was all awry. In 2019, just as the Coventry move was proving unworkable, they announced the development of a new multi-million pound training-centre in – of all unlikely places – Henley-in-Arden, far from Wasps’ roots and not even close to Coventry. Just as extraordinary, the women’s section was politely invited to join training sessions there. How they were supposed to make the journey from London and beyond to the depths of Warwickshire was not explained.

The RFU has rejected any hopes of the men joining the Championship. In all likelihood they would be allowed in only at the lower depths. How would the women’s club manage a rebirth? Four months ago the club stated it was in negotiations with Sevenoaks District Council in central Kent to establish a new base. The recent statement adds the word ‘temporary’ in front of ‘stadium’, which hardly incites confidence.

Even if a ground was secured, where would a new management find players willing to take a chance on future success? We can take it almost for granted that not a single one of the starry names listed above would consider a move back.

And the evidence of the four clubs invited into the elite division (Premier 15s, then PWR) since 2020 reveals how hard it is to lure players who can ensure the standards hoped for.

Of them (Exeter, Leicester, Sale and Trailfinders) only the first has proved able to build a team capable of reaching the heights. The most fruitful source, players from abroad, is now likely to slow down; first, because there is a limited number of players of the requisite quality; second, because they will be aware of the restrictions placed on them by the eligibility rules.

Wasps want to re-establish themselves at the highest possible level. Unfortunately for the women’s section, any level below the PWR means a club is highly unlikely ever to be admitted. Either you are in at the top, or you are out. There are several excellent clubs around the country with ambition, but the chances are, they won’t find acceptance in the elite league. So England selectors are left looking at candidates in a mere nine clubs.

Nor can we be sure that the RFU and its off-shoot in charge of PWR, WP15 Ltd, can discern the best route forward. For all the damning of Wasps’ statement by rugby lovers, there is an underlying concern about Twickenham’s ability to promote a sound future for the game. Everywhere you look, unions are finding it tough keeping finances under control.

If we support Wasps’ future, we are invited to ‘sign the pledge’. A photo of Abby Dow in black and gold kit only heightens the sense of sadness.