Wasps Men's Head Coach Lee Blackett shares his thoughts on recruitment, in our second Coach's Notebook...
Recruitment is a constant focus for us. Planning is done a number of seasons in advance – we are always looking at the depth of our squad to ensure we have the right mix of players to play the way we feel will be successful.
Retention is a key part of our strategy as, ideally, we aren’t making major changes every season. You rarely see winning teams without a stable core group. Some change is inevitable though as we look to be the best we can be. Players may want to stay but won’t be retained, and players you may want to keep end up leaving – that’s just part of the game.
Developing players through our Academy system is crucial, as is ensuring we have the right scouting network to alert us to any gems playing in other leagues or countries. We have also invested heavily in our coaching set-up so we can constantly improve our own playing group.
Understanding who we want to retain, what players may be looking to move on and where any potential gaps are as early as possible is crucial to our plans to be successful.
All of this must work within the confines of any salary cap, and it is obviously a very competitive market.
How do you go about building a squad, knowing numbers you need for each position?
We don’t recruit purely based on numbers, but there are definitely certain positions you need strength in depth. For example, we would always want four looseheads and four tightheads, with Academy guys in those positions behind that as well. As you’ve seen with Zac Nearchou this season, he has played a fair bit of first team rugby, as one of those Academy props. You need to have depth in your front row.
With the salary cap changes we want backs that can play multiple positions. Our hookers could all play in the back row if we needed them to, which shows how the game is changing. You would have seen Gaby Oghre in particular has played a fair bit at openside for us. You look at our second rows as well, we can play a second row at six if we want to go with a big forward pack.
It’s all about balance and looking outside the box at times. The key positions you need strength and depth in would be your specialist positions, such as the front row, second row, scrum half and fly half. You need at least three of each in your squad.
How important is the Academy in building a squad and maxing out the salary cap?
It’s more important than ever. You’ve seen over the last few years, the number of players that we have had come through. You’ll see every Premiership club investing heavily in this area nowadays as it is not only the best way to optimize the new salary cap, but we all get really excited by players coming through to the first team having been with the club from a young age and having that Wasps DNA running through them.
Charlie Atkinson is a good example. He came through quickly, because he got lots of opportunities to play early on. There are plenty of guys that I am excited to see develop, it’s just a matter of us being patient with them.
The change in salary cap has placed more of an emphasis on home grown players, which I think will be a real positive for us. We’ve recently had five players representing England Under 20’s and have a strong crop of young players that have already tasted first team action, players like Olly Hartley and Will Simonds.
Within the next couple of years those England Under 20’s boys will start finding their way into the senior set-up. It depends on the individual and their age on when the best time is to put them in for first team game time. We’ve definitely got a lot of Wasps Academy guys that will be Wasps first team players in the not-too-distant future.
How do you ensure the balance is right between youngsters and experienced heads?
It’s about getting the right blend as a mix of experience and youth brings a lot of benefits.
When players such as Jimmy Gopperth and Malakai Fekitoa are departing it is a natural step to look for players of a similar skill set to replace them if we feel we don’t have that immediately available. Even though the crop we have coming through are quality players, they aren’t necessarily going to fill Jimmy or Malakai’s leadership roles straight away, which is something we’ve planned for.
What processes do you go through when recruiting players, to make sure they suit the way we want to play?
The first and most important thing that we do is look at them as a player, but we’d never sign someone that we thought would not fit in with our culture.
Once we like them for the attributes they bring as a rugby player, we do a lot of research on them as individuals – what sort of personality they have, will they fit in the environment, that sort of thing. A massive thing for us is a player’s will to win and their desire to improve.
We want to find out if they are willing to push themselves to be better. That’s our big thing, we don’t want anyone coming here that doesn’t want to get better. We also don’t want anyone coming here that doesn’t want to win things. Those are two major things we look at.
How is recruitment for next season going?
We have been working hard to ensure the squad is in great shape for next season and it suits the way we want to play. We’re a fair way down the line with recruitment for next season, we are nearly there.
The players we recently announced as leaving is something we’d planned for. We have made a number of signings for next season, targets which were identified some time ago, and we’ll be announcing some of those new arrivals in the very near future.
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