Sackey: Wasps must harness hostility in Toulon
Wasps legend Paul Sackey says that the side will face a hostile reception on Easter Sunday in the Stade Felix Mayol, but have the tools to prosper nonetheless.
The biggest game in recent Club history will see Dai Young’s men face European Champions RC Toulon on Sunday evening in a bid to secure a home semi-final against Leinster or Bath.
The French, for their part, are aiming for a second Top 14 and European double in succession, a mighty feat, and a third consecutive European crown.
Sackey, 35, retired from his active playing career last season, and has since been doing sterling work as a Wasps Ambassador in Coventry and the surrounding West Midlands area.
Having made over 180 appearances for the men in Black and Gold, scoring 43 tries in the process, Paul made the move to Toulon himself in 2010 where he spent a season. During the following two seasons, he played for Stade Francais and visited the ground as an opposing player, so he knows the task facing the side better than most.
He says the wall of hostility faced by opposing players in the Stade Felix Mayol is a real challenge, but can be turned into a positive. He said,
“The players are going to face a lot of hostility. The Toulon fans are fanatics. They are probably the most passionate fans, in fairness. They support their team to the death.”
A cauldron of noise in the 15,400 capacity ground is a given says Paul, but is not necessarily a negative for the Wasps players. Given the great atmosphere at the Ricoh Arena since the Club’s arrival in the Midlands, the players will be well accustomed to a loud and proud atmosphere.
Paul continues, “It's one of those places where you can thrive on that atmosphere. If you can channel it positively, it may work. Some teams love that, so should Wasps. To be honest Felix Mayol and Perpignan are very hostile. It is very hard, because the home team get lifted by their fans and they do help so much.”
22-times capped England man Paul, who won both the Premiership and Heineken Cup titles in his two spells at Wasps, maintains that Wasps have the weapons in their young and talented arsenal to ruffle the feathers of their illustrious counterparts.
He says the side may well be underdogs, but that the swell of positive energy created by the switch to the midlands and the fantastic reception the Club has enjoyed since the December move to Coventry, will give the side real belief heading into Sunday’s showdown.
He muses, “I believe at the moment that the momentum Wasps have created, from the new stadium, the results and everything around it, that going into these big games I think they have the confidence, and the players to go and cause Toulon some problems.”
Paul has in fact played twice himself at the Ricoh, and in a European semi final, against Munster back in 2007, when his try scoring prowess secured him man of the match honours. He knows how big a day it will be for Dai Young and the team if they can pull off a shock and bring Bath or Leinster back to the Ricoh Arena.
“It’s fantastic that Wasps really have their own home. The stadium is probably the best rugby stadium in Europe with everything that it offers.
"When I played there it was close to a sell out or it was packed, the atmosphere and ambience there was unbelievable for the Heineken Cup matches. For it to have that electric vibe again is unbelievable.”
Paul says that his is loving life as a Wasps Ambassador, and that he too has even bowled over by the warm welcome shown to himself and the Club.
The Engage! programme, which Paul is working closely on, is based upon the delivery of sport within the context of rugby’s five core sporting values: Teamwork; Respect; Integrity; Enjoyment; and Discipline.
As a programme that uses rugby as a means of developing and growing young people in particular, it is set to have a wide impact around the city through schools, clubs and community settings.
The programme is managed and delivered through Coventry Sports Foundation along with a wide range of partners, including Wasps who will be working with the Engage! team to deliver several of the Premiership Rugby community schemes that use rugby as a means of enhancing educational and community engagement.
The Engage! emphasis on the five values will ensure that all of the delivery programmes are embedded within a foundation of positive character development for young people.
Paul says it is working rather well, and says he's having a great time meeting the local workers and young people who are the targets for the initiative. He tells us,
“It’s fantastic to see how well Coventry RFC have been playing this season and with Wasps going well alongside them, it’s a great rugby city to be a part of.
“Excuse the pun, but it’s good to see Wasps creating a bit of a buzz in the area, on the field and hopefully through us getting that buzz going off the field as well. Hopefully it coincides and marries the two.
"I'm going round schools trying to get kids back into rugby and enjoying it. I'm making them aware, and letting them know that they can enjoy playing rugby AND come and watch a great Premiership team live at the Ricoh Arena."
Let’s hope it’s in a semi-final in a fortnight!
Paul was talking to Patrick Lennon, Editor of the Wasps match day programme.