Rob Smith is a true Wasps great. He served the Club for nearly 40 years – 11 (1974-85) as a regular first-team back-rower, then nearly 30 as a coach, leading the Club to league titles in 1989/90 and 1996/97, before taking charge of the Academy and producing a constant stream of international players.
As a kid, I was an all-rounder with athletics, cricket and soccer, but never played rugby until I was 11.
I played for Bristol while I was still at school, then went to Borough Road College for three years, before starting teaching. When a mate said: “I’m off training at Wasps”, I went along with him. I knew it’d be good craic, as I knew several former college lads who were already there.
I joined as a player in 1974. Leighton Williams was the coach and we also had an Army P.T. guy, who used to run us like crazy. We’d train hard for a couple of hours then you were sometimes in the bar until 2am, then off to work the following morning. Leighton always put little things down on paper after games. I’ve still got one of mine, from a game against Cardiff. Gareth Edwards told him that he thought I’d played really well. Quite a motivation!
I’d trained pre-season and was picked for the first game of the season - against Bristol! I was dropped, but the next game was at Newport. Some of the guys who were picked knew how hard it was playing in Wales, so quite a few cried off, and I was back in the team. I was never dropped again.
I honestly don’t know exactly how the Cambridge connection began. Possibly something to do with getting a job in London. John Gasson seemed to be behind it. He knew a lot about people like Huw Davies, Mark Bailey, Chris Oti, Alan Buzza, Rob Andrew and had contacts in the city and the property business, so he was able to help them get set up.
I finished playing in 1985 and began coaching. By the time professionalism arrived, methods hadn’t changed much. Facilities were slightly better - we had a physio room by then! We were doing more analysis, but it was all done pitchside by people with pencils, ticking off tackles and seeing individual contributions. There was far more understanding of other teams and how they played, but it was all very broad - nothing like as detailed and specific as nowadays - and it was probably about as much as players could take in. I sometimes think there’s almost too much detail now. A player has his default setting, which you can’t change. When you’re under pressure, you revert to that setting.
The pitch had a big slope, it was quite open on two sides and it turned into a mudbath every year. We were a long way down the pecking order compared with other senior clubs. We envied places like Leicester and Gloucester for their grounds and the crowds and atmosphere they used to get. We created an atmosphere at Sudbury, with people hanging over the benches and right in your face, but we struggled to handle a couple of thousand.
The clubhouse eventually got upgraded and the facilities and infrastructure were improved. We got a physio room, which was interesting. Previously, we never had anybody under physio or injured - they were all out training. The first night we had the physio room, about 20 people lined up, waiting for treatment.
We installed floodlights which sorted out some of the props. When we were running around the pitch, they’d hide, have
a rest, then come out a couple of laps later. Once the lights were there, they had no hiding place. I think some of them used to try to cut the wires!
After the game turned professional, they did get planning permission to upgrade the place. They might have been able to get it up to the 10,000-capacity required, but it wasn’t suitable to develop. It was difficult to get to, surrounded by residential streets. Ten-thousand people trying to get in there at the weekend would have been a nightmare.
THE WASPS WAY
Winning the league in 1990 was really special, as it was back in the old days, and everyone in the Club was part of it. Going into the final game, Gloucester were odds-on favourites. They were away at Nottingham while we were at home to Saracens. We won, then news came trickling through that Gloucester had lost, and we were champions. Next thing, the boys were up on the balcony, holding up the trophy. We threw ourselves into a typical Wasps celebration. No holds barred, everyone together. It was marvellous.
I think what really built up the Wasps way of doing things was touring. You built up great camaraderie and closeness in the squad. Word went around that we were going on tour, and new players turned up. Once they’d been, they’d stay, and the whole thing started to snowball.
A huge amount of credit has to go to people like Alan Black for generating this enthusiasm and enjoyment. I remember one tour to the Far East. We all piled into the airport lounge - a load of yobbish-looking, battered, drunken rugby players. People just cringed, but Blacky just got the boys going, with some singing and play-acting. Before long, other people were joining in. Kids, old folk - everyone was having a great time.
There was an incredible tour to Sweden, with the second and third teams. After one of the games the whole village was circled all the way round, with the whole team all singing away merrily all night. People who hadn’t even been to the rugby came and joined in. The attitude was: “We’re here to have a good time, but not at your expense. You’re part of us as well.”
That characteristic stayed with the Club and I think it’s probably still there now. Respect everyone else. We’re not there to be idiots and make fools of ourselves and upset everybody. We want everyone else to come on board.
After an 11-year playing career, Rob Smith retired and began coaching Wasps in 1985. Under his guidance, they reached two domestic cup finals, before winning the Courage League in 1989/90.
The game went professional in the summer of 1995. Within weeks, Wasps had lost Rob Andrew, Dean Ryan and other senior players, who had all signed for Sir John Hall’s Newcastle.
When all those players left for Newcastle, Lawrence Dallaglio was the obvious choice to succeed Dean as captain. It was clear that he had huge respect from the other players.
The important thing is that it’s a team game and you have to keep everyone together, going in the same direction. I was completely confident that Lawrence would achieve that, but I couldn’t have predicted just how successful he’d be.
When it came to choosing the Director of Rugby for the first professional season, I didn’t think I had the skillset for the job. I preferred to just carry on coaching, which is what I enjoyed.
All sorts of names were being put forward and I eventually had a hissy fit with a few people and said: “I just can’t understand why you aren’t offering the job to Nigel Melville. He’s already at the Club.”
They said: “What do you mean, he’s already at the Club?” I told them that he’d been helping me for a year and was perfect for the role.
It was very pleasing to win the league in 1997 as we’d come close several times in the past but it just felt different to the amateur days. You knew that the next day you just had to get back to work and start rebuilding for next season.
In the old days, you could just relax and enjoy yourselves a little bit more and far more people were directly involved. Despite that, the party which celebrated the title was certainly decent. We won the game at Northampton, then everybody went back to Sudbury and got stuck in.
That big Heineken Cup win against Toulouse (77- 17 in 1996) was really satisfying, particularly after the complete debacle in Munster the previous week, when we lost 49-22.
After every game, Lawrence would make some sort of speech and start a discussion in the changing rooms. Limerick was the only time I ever told him to just sit down. He was struggling for words to explain what had happened. I just said: “Okay, this is what happened, this is where we need to go. Let’s go out and have a good night and I’ll see you all in training when we get back.”
During the week, we hardly spoke at all. We just focused on the game. Toulouse were already almost guaranteed a place in the next round but it was still very satisfying for us to produce such a performance, something that we could build on for the rest of the season.
When Warren Gatland arrived in 2002, we had a great youth set-up, with some of the best teams in the country in all the age-groups. The Under 21s won the play-off final at Twickenham that year. That success was down to a group of guys like Geoff Strange, Greg Soffe, Alex Finch and Phil Moyle and others, who’d put it all together in 1982. That structure had played a huge part in making us one of the strongest sides in the country.
Warren recognised the huge gap between age-group and Premiership levels. He wanted to change things and the Academy system had kicked in by then. We had about 25- 30 lads listed as academy players and he knew that only about two or three would ever make it to the top.
So we went from about 60-odd youth players down to about six in the Academy - people like John Hart, Mike McCarthy, Ali McKenzie, Ben Gotting. At the end of that season, I had to sit everybody down and tell a lot of guys that they’d have to move on, as we were abandoning the age-groups and would be focusing solely on the Academy. It’s still a horrible memory.
The Academy was a passion and was initially about identifying and developing internationals. Early on, Wasps had twice as many youth internationals as everybody else put together.
Around April or May, I used my regular academy notes for the match programme, as a way of saying goodbye. I listed all the Club’s values and said that these would always go with you.
Once A Wasp, Always A Wasp.
The saying had been around for a long time but it certainly wasn’t widely used. The next season, it was suddenly being used as a sort of strapline. It appeared on the back of shirts - all sorts of things. It’s just something that seems to have stuck.
The Academy was a passion and was initially about identifying and developing internationals. Early on, Wasps had twice as many youth internationals as everybody else put together. From there, about two players a year went straight into the senior squad - James Haskell and Tom Rees, then Danny Cipriani and Dom Waldouck etc.
Senior training and playing were vital to their development. We had great success over the years, through to Joe Simpson, Elliot Daly, Christian Wade, Billy Vunipola, Sam Jones, Joe Launchbury, etc.
As a youngster, Danny saw things nobody else could. He’s two or three moves ahead of everyone else and works it all out in an instant. As a coach, you wanted him to do one thing but he’d do something else, and was often right. You ended up looking like a lemon.
THOUGHTS ON THE MODERN GAME
It’s often said that players are now over-coached and can’t play off the cuff anymore. I think that’s more the case in England than anywhere else.
Some coaches just go for broad principles and patterns and maybe just highlight a couple of things where they want
to focus the attention. Others go into monstrous detail. I wonder which method is best but I know what I prefer.
Sport science has grown as the game has become more attritional. The old principle still dominates - “GO FORWARD”, either by carries, quality passing or kicking.
These days, passing comes third but offloading is coming back with the new tackle directive. That can only get better and raise creativity and excitement.
I’d like to see the penalty-to-the-corner ruling changed to only allow lineouts on or outside the 22.