David Kelly: Wasps buzzing again thanks to Irish saviour
Being sent to Coventry has got one of rugby’s most famous clubs buzzing again – just three years after it seemed they were to become dying Wasps, not thriving Wasps.
It’s close to two hours on the M40 from London to the Ricoh Arena, where Wasps will unveil a record crowd for tomorrow’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Exeter Chiefs but it has been a journey worth taking.
Otherwise, an inevitable road to ruin awaited for a proud name.
Were it not for the intervention of an Irish millionaire whose previous penchant for rugby saw him occupy the Lansdowne Road back pitch of an occasional Saturday to watch Wanderers, Wasps could well be extinct.
This time three years ago, the club were an hour from going into administration until Dubliner Derek Richardson plunged his hands into his deep (jeans) pockets to pluck them from certain extinction.
Current coach Dai Young told me last year that things had become so desperate that he had to stump up once to pay the coach driver after one away trip.
You could say the club was being held together with sticking plaster but even if a grizzled prop needed some to protect his beautifully deformed cauliflower ears, he would have to buy his own.
Richardson, who made his millions from the Irish insurance company 123.ie, was the knight in shining armour prepared to save them from doom. Even he did not realise how swiftly would follow the boom.
“If Derek hadn’t come on board, nobody else would have,” says Young. “I can’t pay enough tribute to him.
“You come across a lot of money men but his drive and his enthusiasm to make the club work at all levels is amazing. He’s an inspiration to us all.
“24/7 he’s looking to make everything work for the club, whether it’s to the socks we wear or buying a new stadium. He’s not overpowering, he just wants to help.
“His generosity is immense. He wants to do the right thing. He treats people the right way. He’s very professional but has a lot of dignity. We’re lucky to have him.
“He never interferes but he’ll muck in at the ticket office, selling tickets in his jeans and shirt and nobody knows who he is. Or getting babysitters for the Christmas party so the partners could get together – he put everybody up in the hotel. He doesn’t like the limelight, it’s not an ego trip. He shuns the spotlight.”
Where before there were ready excuses for failure, now it is not an option.
“He has laid the groundwork for everyone else to succeed and the pressure is on the players and coaches now to deliver because of that, and we’re thriving because of that pressure,” assesses former Leinster out-half Jimmy Gopperth, as the club challenge to repeat their 2003/04 League and European double.
“Derek is a really good guy, he’ll pop into the training ground and keep in touch with the players. He’s hands on but yet doesn’t interfere. He just wants to ensure we’re all in this together.”
From a position in High Wycombe, their former home, where they were taking in just 15p in every pound, dropping £3m a year, even during their two European title-winning runs of 2003 and ’07, they now have a 50pc share with Coventry city council of the football club’s Ricoh Arena.
Now they can take in £12m every match day, hospitality revenue is up by 500pc and money taken from shops, bars and food outlets is up by a multiple of 20 at a venue where revenue also streams in from a casino, two restaurants, a hotel and a concert venue.
At a stroke, it details just how important private investment can be to a rugby club; Munster, with an albatross of a near €10m debt on their Thomond Park venue, can only watch on with envy.
“I can’t really comment on whether Irish clubs need a similar model,” says Gopperth, in a week when Newport Gwent Dragons have announced plans of their own to become fully privately owned.
“They have a system that has worked well for years and it has been successful.”
Private investment has boosted facilities at Leinster and Ulster but not to the same extent as Wasps, who now boast the second most lucrative cash cow aside from French giants Toulouse.
And a lucrative multi-million pound bond scheme, apparently the first in rugby, is set to reward the owner and further raise the financial stakes.
And they owe it all to an Irishman.