New head coach Lee Blackett tells NEALE HARVEY how he intends rising to the challenge of bringing back the glory days to Wasps after succeeding Dai Young in the hot-seat.
Congratulations on the appointment, did it surprise you?
It did come as a bit of a shock with how it all started, with Dai Young leaving. But we took it from there and while we didn’t get the result we wanted at Leicester in that first game after Dai left, we had three great performances after that and did well enough as a group for the club to decide to give it a go.
Was it an opportunity you expected at this stage of your career?
Did I expect Dai to go? No. And I never expected to be given the interim head coach’s job either. It wasn’t something I was actively going after but the club asked me if I was interested in taking it on a full-time basis and I’ve always said my ambition was to be a head coach. I expected it to be further down the line but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
Why did Wasps choose you when they might have gone for a bigger name like Joe Schmidt or Michael Cheika?
The club did look around but they were mainly looking for someone who knew the club and knew what Wasps were about – and they looked to me.
You had been linked with Coventry RFC and the Ospreys – any truth?
There was a little bit of truth in those but when you get to this time of year you always get that and we didn’t know exactly where we’d be. I was still in contract for next season with Wasps and while approaches were made, nothing was ever finalised to the point where I was leaving.
With Wasps opting to no longer have a director or rugby, how important will CEO Stephen Vaughan be to you in picking up that slack?
I see my strength as being more on the field and leading the coaching, so Stephen and I have spoken about that and we know what best suits me. We need to be clever around what might detract from my performance as head coach so I don’t get caught up in stuff behind the scenes. You can get dragged into too many of those off-field conversations so I’ve got to concentrate on the most important things in terms of performances and getting us wins.
Presumably you’ll still have a big say in any squad changes?
We’re not going to sign a player without Stephen speaking to myself and the other coaches. We know the way we want to play the game so we’ll only want players who fit our mould. We’ll target those players and Stephen will then be at the forefront of getting deals sorted.
After three cracking wins over Saracens, London Irish and Gloucester hauled Wasps up to fifth, did you feel ready for a title challenge?
The stoppage in the season came at an unfortunate time because there was real feel-good factor around the players and it left people wanting more. Saracens was a complete performance, we showed great character against London Irish after trailing, and then against Gloucester we took our opportunities really well.
We don’t expect to make too many changes to our squad this year and we’re pretty happy with where we are, so we just want to keep improving week-by-week and see how far we can go now whenever we can get back playing again.
Jacob Umaga has been a revelation at No.10, how pleased have you been with him?
It was brilliant to see him getting into the England squad and we’ve seen enough now to know his quality. In pre-season, Billy Searle and Lima Sopoaga were both injured and by the time they came back, we’d done most of our preparation with Jacob.
We saw how well he went in the Premiership Cup games at the start so he had a big advantage over the other two and although he copped a concussion against Northampton and missed a few games, we’ve continued to back him and he’s rewarded us by the bucket load. We know young guys can be up and down and you have to manage that, but Jacob’s been fantastic for us and has made a real difference already.
Has Jacob’s family pedigree helped him make that jump?
When I made my Premiership debut for Rotherham in 2004, his dad, Mike, was my backs coach and I played alongside him. I know the family really well and I spoke to Mike years ago about Jacob and the potential he had. He’s come through really well and you only have to look at his family, with Mike and Tana Umaga, to see how those genes have helped.
Lima Sopoaga’s endured a pretty torrid 18 months at Wasps and you recently played him at full-back, so where does he fit in now?
Lima came to us at a hard time last season and a lot was put on his shoulders, which I felt was a bit unfair because he never had settled partnerships with his nines, 12s and 13s. Jimmy Gopperth, who’d been a great foil for Danny Cipriani and provided a lot of the organisation, was out for the season and Dan Robson and Joe Simpson both went down as well, so there was a lot of chopping and changing which didn’t help Lima’s transition from Super Rugby one bit.
Recently, though, he’s been fantastic at 15 and although it’s the first time he’s really played there, he’s got great attributes for the position as he’s a really good runner and decision-maker. He’s a proven international 10 who can now play at 15 as well so he’ll have a big part to play for us moving forward.
Jimmy Gopperth’s 36 and out of contract in June, but surely you want to keep him?
Hopefully, we’ll see Jimmy here next year. We obviously want him at the club because, last season’s ACL injury aside, he’s been brilliant for all five years I’ve been here. Me and Jimmy joined Wasps at the same time and while we’ve had some ups and downs, he’s been a constant. His big strength is just understanding the game and what a team needs at a particular time.
As players we all have different attributes but to have that feeling of what should be done at the right time is a brilliant skill to have and for someone like Jacob Umaga on his inside, that’s really beneficial. We tend to do really well when Jimmy’s playing at 12, but then if you’ve not got Jimmy there aren’t many better than Ryan Mills, who we’ve just signed from Worcester. Hopefully, we’ll have both of them in our squad next season along with Mike Le Bourgeois, so there’ll be brilliant competition there.
Frenchman Thibaut Flament’s done really well for you as lock-cum-back row but is being linked with Toulouse. Can you hold on to him too?
He’s someone we want to hold on to. Understandably, he’s very passionate about playing for France but we’ll do everything we can to keep him. Players have decisions to make and we understand that, but he’s been given an opportunity here and done really well so we hope that will count for something and we want him to carry on.
A lot’s being said about rugby finances, but are you confident you’ll get backed by Wasps?
In all the conversations I’ve had with the board so far, I feel like I’ll get their full backing.
You’re only 37 but were actually the head coach of Rotherham at 30, so do you feel ready for a job of this magnitude at Wasps?
I retired as a player when I was 30 to go straight into my first head coach’s job at Rotherham and had two good years there before joining Wasps as attack coach. I’m going into my eighth year in coaching now so I’d say yes, I am experienced enough and there’s plenty of experience within the staff here as well. I know what makes a positive, winning environment.
Who would you class as coaching mentors?
Early on in my career, Geoff Wappett and Andy Northey taught me the tough side of the game at Rotherham and then in terms of culture and environment, Stuart Lancaster was brilliant for me at Leeds.
I stay in contact with Stuart and had an hour with him the other day talking a few things through, so I have a lot of time for him. I also took a lot from Neil Back at Leeds in terms of his competitiveness and quite liked that. Then there are coaches I’ve worked with more recently like Brad Davis and Phil Blake, while Dai Young is someone I’ll always be grateful to for giving me a chance to come out of the Championship. I’d like to think his gamble paid off with us being within 90 seconds of winning a Premiership title two years later.
How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
A team attacking with fear, naturally tighten up. We’ve spoken about not playing with fear and not being worried about making mistakes, but being positive in our mindset. It made a big difference in our last three games against Saracens, London Irish and Gloucester but we’re not naïve enough to think we’ve cracked it. Over a longer time it’s going to be a miles bigger challenge but if we want to play the type of game we want to play and get the fans behind us, we have to have that no fear mentality because if you don’t you won’t throw that ambitious pass for fear of making a mistake. People say that not having relegation would help, but that’s not an attitude I subscribe to because there’s still pressure on you to finish top six or top four and to win every single week anyway. You’ve seen the confidence we were playing with and that’s typified our philosophy.
Dan Robson has grown as a captain, does his form warrant an England call now he’s fully over the illness that blighted him last season?
As the season’s gone on, Dan’s got better and better and he was back to his complete best before the stoppage, playing with full confidence and being massively important to how well we did. Leadership-wise, this season’s been the first time he’s captained the side in the Premiership and he’s got better at that as well. He’s become a really confident leader and it was great to see he wasn’t looking to the sidelines waiting for someone else to make a decision, he was doing it on the field and there was a sense of confidence about what he was delivering. With England, if he can maintain the form he showed at the start of this year, he’ll be there or thereabouts and cannot be ignored. The break probably came at a bad time because he must have been in with a shout for the Japan tour, but we know he can play international rugby, there’s no doubt about that.
We mentioned Rotherham earlier, so how hard has it been for you to see both them and Leeds being relegated, which is bad news for Yorkshire rugby?
It’s been tough to see both my former clubs struggling. Yorkshire has the most rugby clubs of any county and it does really need a team in the Premiership, so it’s sad to see two of its leading sides will be in the lower divisions. Unfortunately, like most sport these days, you need that owner and some heavy financial backing to get you there and neither of those Yorkshire clubs has got it. There’s a good talent pool and I’m sure that at some point someone will get hold of one of those clubs, but it’s not easy because, in the case of Leeds, they’ve got a very successful rugby league team in Leeds Rhinos to compete against and Leeds United are a huge football club.
Having been a player there, I can vouch for how tough it is to compete with those guys and you need to be successful to build crowds and be sustainable in the Premiership. It was happening for Leeds Tykes but then relegation comes along and people fall off. I’m pretty sure someone will help them rise again but at this point it’s pretty sad to see where Leeds and Rotherham are.
Does their situation just strengthen the case for Premiership ring-fencing and an expansion system over promotion and relegation?
You can see the pros and cons of both systems. As a fan you enjoy the cut and thrust of promotion and relegation, but financially you can see why it might need to be ring-fenced.
How do you see the future of the Championship?
My background as a coach was in the Championship and I’m a big believer in that league from my time with Rotherham and Leeds. Why’s Jacob Umaga come through this year? It’s because he went to New Zealand and then came back and had a year in the Championship with Leeds. I’m a big advocate of young Premiership players going to play in the Championship because it accelerates their learning and they come back better players through playing at that level. I’m not going to comment on whether the RFU are funding the Championship well enough but one thing I can say from being in the competition is that it’s brilliant for player and coach development.
Back to Wasps, are you happy to have forwards specialist Richard Blaze and Pete Atkinson on your new coaching team?
Richard was someone the club were interested in for a while so we’re delighted he’s now on board, while Pete, our new head of performance, comes with a brilliant reputation. We aggressively went after him from Italy because we felt he’d be really important to our whole set-up.
Personally, are you looking forward to pitting your coaching wits against experienced big hitters like Rob Baxter, Chris Boyd, Johan Ackermann and Dean Richards?
It’s a challenge everyone in the club is looking forward to and it’s why you’re in the business. I honestly don’t think about other people, though, I’m only concerned about improving all aspects of my team week-to-week and people understanding how big a club like Wasps is and the responsibility we all have to this club with its fantastic history.