Lee Blackett remembers the morning after his first game in charge at Wasps. The team were, he says, at rock bottom with senior players admitting they weren’t good enough.
Fast forward from those desperate days in February, and the Blackett revival sees Wasps chasing their first Premiership title since 2008 on Saturday when they take on Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham.
Wasps were once a side dripping with success. Twelve years ago, Lawrence Dallaglio led the black and golds to their eighth major trophy in six seasons, marking the end of an era which produced four Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups from 2002 to 2008.
In 2017, Dai Young’s Wasps came within a whisker of ending their wait for a trophy, until Exeter Chiefs snatched a late 20-17 win in extra-time at Twickenham.
But now, in 2020, to complete an elongated season full of twists and turns, Wasps will be reunited with the Chiefs at England Rugby HQ with a chance to produce one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the Premiership’s recent history.
Rewind back to February, with director of rugby Young stepping down from his duties after an impressive nine seasons in charge, leaving backs coach Lee Blackett taking the reins in the interim, starting with an important clash with Leicester Tigers.
“I always look back to that Leicester game,” said Blackett. “We had two weeks of hard preparation heading into it and we’d announced the team, but it was revealed that Dai was leaving. It caught us all by surprise.
“We played that game and we were poor (losing 18-9) and I always think back to the conversation the day after the game.
“All players and coaches met on the Sunday morning. The conversations in the room that day changed things. The big feeling was that we’d lost our identity. Leicester imposed their game on us with their forward pack – but we didn’t impose our game on them.
“I remember we had a five-on-two situation 20 metres from our line and we didn’t take it. We kicked the ball away. We spoke about being a side that wouldn’t miss opportunities like that, no matter where it was on the field. If it’s on, it’s on. Yes, we’ve got to be conservative and exit at times but we have to take those opportunities when they unfold.
“Within those Sunday morning conversations, even some senior players said we weren’t good enough to play the way we used to. That’s when it hit home. We were rock bottom at that stage. Our confidence was shot.”
Sitting 10th in the table and just two points ahead of Tigers, it was a far-from-ideal first game in charge, but Blackett and his staff quickly identified an area which needed immediate change.
“As coaches, players, leaders and staff, it was a clear sign we had to move forward,” said Blackett. “We put it onto the players and said if you see that five-on-two, you take it. If our skill lets us down then that’s on the coaches – but our whole aim was to build confidence from there. It built into a really good week.”
Just six days later, they thumped European and Premiership champions Saracens 60-10 at Ricoh Arena, before two more bonus-point wins against London Irish and Gloucester catapulted them to fifth in the table, and all of a sudden bearing down on the play-off places.
So, what did the head coach put that fruitful spell down to?
“We felt we had two things that were up there with the best in the Premiership – one was our breakdown, especially defensively, and the other was our unstructured attack,” explained Blackett.
“Rather than focusing all our attention on the things we needed to work on, we put emphasis on what our big strengths were and talked about our identity – which was broken field, where we’re dangerous, and defensively, that we’re going to be a team which gets the ball back as quickly as possible. We had a big shift there.
“It was about losing any chat around what we can’t do and focus on what we can do. That got us through the next couple of games and obviously the Sarries performance was outstanding and one of the best I’ve had at the club.
“The things we talked about after the Leicester game were quick-fixes to try and get us results. The confidence started to build and it took us through to lockdown.”
Lockdown probably came at a bad time, but the impressive run beforehand saw Blackett handed the head coach role on a permanent basis, which then allowed him and his team to assess things behind the scenes ready for rugby’s restart.
“It gave us a really good chance to reflect on where we were culturally as a club, on and off the field,” said Blackett. “There were some great conversations with players and staff about getting closer as a group. I want to be at a club which people enjoy being at.
“Our main emphasis is people wanting to stay at the club. We want to build an environment where players and staff enjoy being a Wasp. That’s our number one thing but people will also stay if they think they’re developing.”
The unusual situation over the summer meant that players and coaches went both ways through the door, midway through the season. The likes of Nizaam Carr and legend Ashley Johnson left the club, as well as forwards coach Andy Titterrell, while Worcester’s Ryan Mills joined along with coaches Richard Blaze and Neil Fowkes.
The change in personnel didn’t disrupt Wasps’ flow ahead of the restart, and Blackett paid tribute to all his hard-working staff who have combined to help the team progress to the final.
“We talk about unsung heroes and Matt Everard (transition coach) is ours. He doesn’t get mentioned much but he’s absolutely pivotal to what we’re doing. He’s done incredible work with the younger guys over the past few years but we’re trying to change our culture and that’s based around him.
“We’ll train with as many as 46 players on the field some days, so if you’re running 15 v 15 then you’ve got 16 players off the field doing skills and extra sessions with Matt.
“We’ve got a massive focus on our individual development plans and that’s where the S&C have come in massively. Every player’s programme on and off the field is different. It’s getting the players in the best possible position to get them out on the field and develop them and make them feel different to everyone else.
“Martin Gleeson has taken on more of my previous role (attack and backs coach) and he’s done really well. I’ve learned so much off him, like how to break defences down. He sees the game in a different way. He’s been in a year and he’s an intelligent guy who picks things up really quickly.
“Cos (Ian Costello, defence coach) is a quality coach and the boys are proving on the field how well coached we are in that area. Tits (Titterrell) did a great job as forwards coach especially in his last month. Our forward pack improved massively in that short spell and then Blazey came in and developed that while putting his own stamp on things. He’s a massive team player and buys into developing. He’s given our forward pack an edge.
“Fowkesy (Neil Fowkes) has come in, focusing on the scrum and does a lot of work with the props early week, going through their games individually. He’s doing a fantastic job.
“As a team, everyone is working so hard behind the scenes. The leadership of the players has been huge too. Our first meeting of the week at 7.30am on Monday is the coaches and senior players. The last meeting of the week before gameday is senior players and the squad. No staff are in it. It is coach-led early in the week and players take onus before gameday.”
Something has clearly worked, as after the rugby restart, Wasps have won nine from ten to propel themselves to the final, but there’s a number of reasons that Blackett puts it down to.
“There’s lots of little things,” said the Wasps boss. “It’s something we keep asking ourselves. As a club we are trying to reflect all the time on what’s been going well but also what’s going to make us better.
“We’ve focused more on attitude and culture than changing what we do on the field. We’ve changed the way we train because we feel the game is going a certain way. A big emphasis has been put on how hard we are willing to work.
“We knew defensively we needed to do more with the boys and now we do a separate session on contact skills like tackle and breakdown. Allowing everyone to lead the club is the biggest thing though, so whether it’s coaches or players leading from the front, you’re seeing that leadership throughout and you’re seeing that on the field.
“When was the last time you saw a Wasps player looking to the sidelines for a decision? I’m enjoying seeing that leadership, especially on the field. We were confidence-shot before – one bad thing would happen and we wouldn’t be able to recover. You’re seeing setbacks happen now but we’re able to recover immediately.
“Everyone in the environment deserves credit. The shape and the motivation the players came back with post-lockdown was just ridiculous. How hard they trained before we even got to the social distance training and how well the S&C team led that period, has put us in this place.”
Blackett’s stats as Wasps head coach are remarkable. To date, with 63 tries scored at an average of 4.5 per game, as well as 514 points accrued at 36.71 per game, it’s a record for a head coach in the history of the Premiership.
And, excluding his first game at Leicester, Blackett has won 12 from 13. In terms of form, 63 tries in 13 games is the third-highest in Premiership history, while 505 points in the same time is the second-highest.
But does it rank as one of his best ever achievements? He said: “I don’t think I can answer that right now because it’s over such a short time. We are far from the finished article, we’re keeping our feet grounded and we’re on a high. You always go on highs at times but it’s all about the top clubs like Exeter, Saracens and Leinster – the teams that stay there for long periods. We’ve only just started our journey. It would be a great achievement if we’re getting to this kind of stage over the next three or four years.
“You have to pinch yourself sometimes. In February, nobody expected to win this many games in such a competitive league. If you’d have offered me top-six I’d have been satisfied but we’re a competitive club and we wouldn’t have taken anything other than to give ourselves an opportunity to get top-four. Sat in tenth, sixth would have been a great success, but we always felt there was plenty to come from us.”
But now, they are staring at the prospect of being champions – if they can overcome the Chiefs, who have featured in each of the last four finals, but who have only won once in 2017 – against Wasps.
Tommy Taylor, Joe Launchbury, Thomas Young, Dan Robson, Jimmy Gopperth and Josh Bassett all started in that match, while Simon McIntyre is another of the seven survivors from the matchday 23 who were denied victory by an 80th-minute penalty from Gareth Steenson. The Irishman then landed the killer blow late in extra-time to break Wasps hearts.
And although Blackett believes those players will have learned from the experience, he is urging his men to show passion on the field this Saturday.
Blackett admitted: “We didn’t start great and looked a bit nervy. We brought in a club psychologist called Chris Marshall and we learnt a lot of lessons which I wish I knew before that final. There will always be nerves but we can’t allow them to take over.
“Two moments stood out for me in our semi-final recently v Bristol. What I liked most was the celebrations of the guys in the non-matchday 23, who you’ve had to have awkward conversations with in the week to leave them out. I’ve watched it about ten times – their celebrations show how much they care.
“That’s when you know you’re moving in the right direction when you’ve got every single person at the club willing the team to succeed.
“The other was Pete Atkinson (head of performance) celebrating. He arrived in the summer but is already so embedded in the club and so desperate for us to win. We want people to be emotional and to celebrate tries whether on or off the field. It’s a natural feeling.”
Saturday will be a special day for the men in black and gold, no matter the result, and Blackett has delivered this message to his troops as they hunt a seventh domestic league title, with only Leicester having won more (ten).
“When you get to this stage, you have to enjoy it,” he said. “Don’t let it pass you by. There’s no point saying it’s just another game. It’s not.
“When you listen to Rob Baxter at Exeter and the first final they reached v Saracens – they were just happy to be there. The following year when they played us, it was their time to win it. That’s the mentality we want to have.
“We’ve been there before. We’ve worked so hard to be here again and we have to enjoy it, but we’re here to try and win it.”
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