Season Review | An Interview With...Lee Blackett

Date: 7 Jun 2022

 

We'll talk about what happened on the field in a moment, but probably one of the most significant events of the season was the opening of the new training centre in Henley.

“If you look at our league position, it's not where we want to be. I hate it with a passion, everybody hates it, but there are still positives. I cringe at myself saying that, but moving into the Elite Performance and Innovation Centre in Henley-In-Arden has been fantastic.

“We started the season with a long injury list and we were having to play people week in, week out. We couldn't look after people as much we would have liked.

“Around Christmas, we started getting people back. We have a 4G pitch which we can use in the winter. All the facilities we have at the new training ground helped us massively. It's made a huge difference with how we can handle injuries.

“You can definitely get too comfortable, but we are absolutely determined that this place cannot become comfortable. When players come through the door, there are no excuses. We have the facilities for players to become the best they can be.”

 

If you were asked to sum up the season in one word, which word (apart from long) would it be?

“I'd actually use two words. Two halves.

“I thought we started the season really well. We carried over a long injury list from the previous season, but we started with a great win against Bristol. We should have beaten Newcastle, but lost in the last play of the game. A good, comfortable home win against Northampton, then we had a really great performance at home to Exeter, but lost narrowly. We had so many injuries and they put out a very strong side that day, but we showed enormous character and resilience. I've never seen a losing side get such an ovation at the end of the game. It was a loss, but a great performance.

“We sent a much-changed side to Saracens, then we won at Bath. The following week, we were 16-0 up at halftime against Quins. Up until then, I'd been happy with how things had gone, but that was when the wheels came off. We went into the Premiership Cup and had a couple of weeks off. Coming back, we just didn't fire up. Then, we started to pick up more and more injuries. The injury list went into the twenties.

“We were spending as much time raising a team as preparing it for the next game. We were getting players in who turned up on team run day and then played the next day. Players were sitting next to people they didn't even know. Sometimes, you were signing guys at 9pm on Sunday and they were coming in for training first thing on the Monday morning. The rest of the squad didn't even know these guys were going to be coming in. It was a bit like Geoff Strange picking up people at motorway service areas, on the way to Monday night A League games! It really was a challenge.

“Despite all the challenges I really believe that there are areas of our game which have improved. This really feels like a Wasps team now. We have a lot of players who have come through the Academy. It's the first time since I joined the club that we've had so many Academy graduates.

“Look at our team for the Sale game. Tom West, Gabriel Oghre, Charlie Atkinson, Jack Willis, Alfie Barbeary, Tom Willis, Will Porter and Jacob Umaga - all Wasps Academy graduates.

“Then we have Biyi Alo, who we picked up from Coventry, where he wasn't getting game time. We've invested heavily in him. Elliot Stooke - even though he's only been here for a season, you really feel that he's embedded here. He's tight with the boys. You can see it by the way he plays. Brad Shields, he's captained the side in a lot of games. Dan Robson is going into his eighth season at the club next year. Josh Bassett, coming up to ten years at the club. It really feels like it's our club.

“We've had games where twenty-one of the matchday squad have been English. Any successful team is built around good Academy guys. Look at Saracens. So many of their top players are Academy boys. The same with Exeter. Then there's Harlequins and their success last year. So many of their young guys came through their Academy.

“Teams that go on and win things generally have strong Academy pathways and it's vital to us. The younger guys bring real energy and they're now experienced. There's pressure on them to kick on next season. They'll be bringing the energy and they'll be the heartbeat of the side.”

 

Looking back over the season as a whole, there were times in just about every game when we played some wonderful rugby, but there were other times which weren't so good. Everybody yearns for that eighty-minute performance. How far off that are we?

“That is the consistency that we are striving for. There are just those little periods in games where momentum goes. When that happens, you have to look at other areas of your game. If the main area of your game isn't working, you need to step up in other areas.

“If you look at our maul recently, it's become a weapon. Our scrum is starting to move in the right direction. I know it didn't really work against Sale, which was a bad day at the office, but bringing in Vincent Koch and John Ryan is only going to add to our ability at scrum time.

“That gives us the platform we need. Any team that does well in the Premiership has a strong pack.”

 

A few years ago, our pack was probably seen as an Achilles heel, while the backs scored tries for fun. Look at the try-scoring lists for this season and our hookers have comfortably outscored our wingers.

“I think if you have a look across the league, there are a lot of hookers who are near the top of the try-scoring lists. With our hookers, they don't just score maul tries. They're dynamic and score in multiple different areas. As long as our maul is going well, I expect to see our hookers up near the top of the scoring lists, as they'll also be scoring tries away from the maul.”

 

There were very few big defeats this season. Most of them were very narrow losing margins and there were key moments when a pass didn't go to hand, or there'd be a crucial handling error. On the training field, you can recreate those positions, but you can't recreate the scoreboard pressure or the match situations.

“You try to. You really try your best to. You'll never get the same situation, but you can put them under a lot of pressure. Looking forward, we want to continue working on the set piece, but our skill set has to improve.

“If you're talking about absolute priorities for next season, they'll be the set piece and our skill set and our catch-pass. Those are the areas which will have the biggest say in where we go next season.

“There have been big improvements in our kicking game and the way we manage games, but I think that at times it has been to the detriment of our passing game. That's what we need to improve. It doesn't just happen overnight. You need to spend a lot of time on it. If you look at some of the best passing sides, it's taken them a few years to get to their current level. There are certain aspects of our game which we spend more time on than others, but you can't work on absolutely everything. I can assure you that we will be spending more time on our passing and handling next season, especially in the back line. That will be priority number one.”

 

When you look back over the season, can you identify times when, with the benefit of hindsight, you might have done some things differently?

“After any loss, I definitely reflect on my decisions. You think that maybe if we'd done that, maybe if we'd made a change on the field at that time, if we'd selected a slightly different team, if we'd gone in with a slightly different gameplan - but you'll never know. You're also constantly looking forward and trying to improve as a group. If we have made mistakes, we make sure we don't make the same mistakes again.

“I've not seen a forward pack work as hard as the one we have now, but it comes to the detriment of some other things. We can't keep them out there for ten hours a day. It won't happen, as they wouldn't be able to turn up at the weekend.

“The pack have produced some big games recently. Look at Edinburgh, in the Challenge Cup Quarter-Final. They just took control and they won us the game. Even at Lyon, they did so much good stuff against a big pack. It stands you in such good stead if you go into big games with a pack which you know can deliver for you. We just need to make our error count lower than it is.”

 

What was the season's highlight for you?

“The Exeter Chiefs away win didn't quite feel the way it should have. It was a great win and I should have enjoyed it more than I did. I was just so frustrated with what had happened before.

“I think my highlight is the period which began when we beat Leicester and then Toulouse. Munster rather spoilt it, but then we beat Saracens. There was also the run towards the end of the season, when we got to the Challenge Cup Semi-Final.

“The most frustrating game has to be the Semi-Final in Lyon, because I just felt that we were the better team. Then there was the game at Irish. For sixty-eight minutes, it was the most complete performance I'd seen from us all season. The defence was on top, the attack was on top, the pack were on top. It was as good as you've seen and to have that final thirteen minutes was savage.”

 

During that good run towards the end of the season, you had a lot of quality players who weren't getting much or any rugby. Looking ahead, how are you going to keep everybody happy next season?

“That's the challenge. Towards the end of this season, we got our injury list down to just a handful and we need to try and keep it that way. We learnt some lessons along the way, in terms of injuries. Hopefully, we can take that forward. We know that when everybody's fully fit, we have a very good squad. It's also a very young squad with great experience at the top end.”

 

The Premiership this season has probably been more competitive than ever, with only a handful of points separating fourth and ninth place. Are you expecting it to be even more competitive next season?

“We've won as many as we've lost. That's normally enough to put you in the top six and challenging for the top four. The fact that we're not tells you a lot about the Premiership. I think the salary cap has definitely had a lot to do with that.

“In the past, you'd look at a couple of sides and say "They're stand-outs." It was like that with Saracens a few years ago. At their absolute best, they were likely to win the competition.

“This season we've beaten four of the top five and the Premiership is as tight as it's been. That's the scary thing as well, you know you're always going to have to be at your best. By the end of the season, one bad performance can be costly and you’re chasing. Twelve dodgy minutes against London Irish and, before you know it, your hopes are more or less gone.”

 

Finally, what would your message to the supporters be?

“The loyalty of our supporters is clear for all to see and hear. In the past, I've been at games which we've lost and people have been saying negative things which you can hear in the stadium. This year, the supporters have really got behind us. They've realised the situation we were in, with so many players out injured and so many young guys on the field. The way they've backed them has been a great credit to them.

“You go back to that Exeter game at the start of the season.  We lost, but the team was given a massive ovation. The supporters understood the situation and you can see that they are knowledgeable people. That would be my big thing - the way they have given the players their support, even through tough times. The boys don't forget it.”