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Deja vu all over again for Wasps?

By Paul Smith
15 May 1999: Trevor Leota of Wasps celebrates with the trophy after winning the 1999 Tetley Bitter Cup Final match against Newcastle played at Twickenham in London, England. The match finished in a 19-29 win for the Wasps. Mandatory Credit: Stu Forster /Allsport

In the light of last week’s Guardian story regarding Wasps’ relaunch plans the club’s former Media Manager Paul Smith who also followed them for three seasons as Coventry Telegraph Rugby Correspondent has cast an eye over their proposals…


Lawrence Peter ‘Yogi’ Berra is not an especially well-known figure in English rugby union circles.

But for those of us whose Mastermind specialist subject is ‘the Wasps saga from 2014 to the present day,’ one of Berra’s oft-quoted phrases sprung readily to mind this week.

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The former New York Yankees’ pitcher, who has more World Series titles to his name than anyone before or since, is credited with first using: ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’

And following the publication of excellent Guardian rugby writer Rob Kitson’s scoop on the latest instalment in the biggest car crash in English club rugby history, that was my immediate reaction.

According to Kitson, Wasps’ new owner Chris Holland has medium-term plans to develop a new-build complex comprising a 25,000-seater rugby stadium plus “a hotel, conference facilities and community leisure opportunities.”

The Guardian also revealed that Wasps intend that their “rugby revenues will account for less than 50 per cent of the club’s total revenues by 2028,” while “brand leveraged revenues from other stadium activities bring in an estimated £7 million a year from 2027 onwards.”


Seemingly those running the business aim to return to the Premiership in September 2025, two years prior to this new facility being operational. In addition, they reportedly believe that in the meantime: “The club’s existing training ground in Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire could satisfy the criteria to stage competitive league matches.”

This leaked story clearly attempts to combat mounting social media angst regarding the air silence which has enveloped Wasps since the RFU provisionally agreed the club’s return to the Championship next September.

But for those who have stayed close to the acrimonious saga since the two-time European champions folded into receivership shortly after the start of the current season with reported debts of £110 million, the proposals raise more questions than they answer.

By being offered a provisional Championship spot the former Ricoh Arena club avoided the fate of Worcester Warriors whose resurrection bid was summarily rejected by Twickenham.


This suggests Wasps’ proposal is credible – but there is little hard evidence to confirm just how close it is to making the transition from planning stage to reality. Indeed, four months ahead of the 2023/24 kick off those remaining faithful to the black-and-gold’s hopes of making a professional or semi-professional return have precious little by way of infrastructure, personnel or even PR content to cling on to.

Having recently visited the Coventry Building Society Arena, I can confirm all evidence of Wasps’ ownership of the 35,000-seater stadium has disappeared. With the venue now on Mike Ashley’s asset register and his football club tenants Coventry City riding high in the English Championship in front of 20,000-plus crowds there seems little likelihood of this situation changing.

While the Sky Blues are currently in seventh place in their table, following a brilliant second half of the season which saw them draw with Jersey and beat Ealing, Coventry Rugby already know they will finish third in English rugby’s second tier – their highest placing since being relegated from the fledgling Courage League Division One in the late 1980’s.

Both clubs are therefore on the crest of a wave and – as social media reflects – it is fair to say that there is limited appetite among the city’s sports lovers for a Wasps return.

Indeed, many believe that the former Premiership giants should follow the example of other failed clubs including Warwickshire neighbours Rugby Lions, Richmond and London Welsh and begin their new life among amateur clubs at the base of the English pyramid.

Wasps Munster Heineken Cup 2004
Wasps’ Joe Worsley celebrates beating Munster (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

And as Coventry Rugby Chief Exec Nick Johnston has consistently pointed out to anyone willing to listen, if Wasps are not returning to the Coventry Building Society Arena, according to RFU regulations this is the immediate future the phoenix club should face.

Depending on your viewpoint, by accepting that Wasps will occupy their fourth home venue since leaving Sudbury, English rugby’s governing body are displaying empathy for a struggling former giant or bending over backwards to support the old boys network.

Either way, for Holland’s club to be in a position to accept the leg-up that the RFU are offering and play in the Championship they need a suitable home ground – and quick.

In the last few months we have heard National League football club Solihull Moors’ Damson Lane ground and Worcester’s Sixways home mooted as possible groundshare options, but in truth neither represents an especially attractive commercial proposition.

Both are some distance from the club’s fan base – or what remains of it – in West London, Wycombe and Coventry. Hiring a ground also incurs cost, bar and catering revenues are at best likely to be shared with landlords while few merchandising, club shop, corporate sales or advertising opportunities can be generated in a venue for hire.

This brings us a full circle back to 2014 when the need to own these revenue streams drove Wasps from Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park to a then-vacant Ricoh Arena, the purchase of which was funded through an ill-fated bond issue. Like the proposed new build facility described by Kitson, Coventry City’s current home has a hotel, casino, exhibition hall and conferencing capabilities which Wasps believed would fund loss-making Premiership rugby.

The club’s debts at this point were around £10 million – after eight years as owners of the Ricoh they had increased ten-fold. Yet despite Holland being front and centre in the collapse of the previous Wasps business as its Chief Operating Officer, he is now seemingly putting forward a carbon copy solution for the phoenix club located at an unspecified point “on the M40 corridor.”

Whether this is Wycombe – whose council consistently turned down new-build proposals a decade ago – Oxford where London Welsh generated little interest in Premiership rugby or closer to their training centre in South Warwickshire seems irrelevant until Wasps demonstrate how they can make this approach work. Déjà vu all over again or is there a yet-to-emerge cunning plan?

Wasps former home in Coventry – PA

Big question marks must also surround the leaked proposal’s interim ground solution. Having taken my daughter on many occasions to Henley-in-Arden when the training facility that Holland now owns was a site operated by Warwickshire College, I seriously question the village’s suitability to host a sporting occasion of any size.

In 2019 the pressure group Henley Sports Centre Alliance made an ultimately futile attempt to stop the local council selling the college site – which was formerly also used by a number of community sports clubs – to Wasps’ directors and among their objections are a number of issues relevant to this proposal.

Although close to the M40, the quaint village of Henley-in-Arden has a tight crossroads in its centre which is a traffic bottleneck when busy. Despite what local estate agents may suggest, is also almost totally inaccessible by public transport from anywhere other than Birmingham.

There is also the question of whether the construction of spectator facilities would be acceptable to the local council and those who live nearby. While temporary stands for a few hundred may be a satisfactory compromise when Hartpury or Caldy visit, the derby with Coventry or a future visit of a relegated Premiership club (which last year would theoretically have been Bath!) is a different matter.

Moving to the question of the new club’s available funding, informed local sources suggest that Holland paid around £150,000 to buy the goodwill associated with the Wasps name plus some memorabilia from the receivers.

However, even if the £20 million-plus owed by the failed business to HMRC and the Government’s COVID survival fund for sports clubs is written off, financial experts believe that for the new club to become a viable concern a big cash injection is still required.

Their analysis suggests that the club’s new owners need at least £5 million to both meet the RFU’s stipulation that phoenix companies repay their predecessor’s rugby-related debts in full and keep enough working capital with which to restart life and play for a year as groundshare tenants in the Championship.

Before believing that the new Wasps entity is ‘real’ sceptics understandably need to see some evidence that this level of financial support exists in the here and now. Until this happens the huge levels of longer-term funding which a new build venue would require are a question for the future.

The announcement of the beginnings of a playing and coaching infrastructure would also go some way to allay concerns regarding the plausibility of Wasps being in the Championship in September.

Since the RFU’s January announcement, social media been alive with speculation regarding the return as a player-coach of former Wasps’ greats such as Leicester’s Jimmy Gopperth or the recently-retired Joe Simpson. However, it seems that a more cost-effective, semi-pro set-up featuring local players is a more realistic option for getting a new club off the ground.

A few Wasps players who were made redundant in the autumn but are yet to sign with other clubs are potential candidates providing the new club can outbid other Championship or National One suitors for their services. According to a couple who are in this situation no such approaches have yet been made.

Wasps Vaughan administration
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Following the emergence of the Solihull groundshare proposal, both Coventry and National One Birmingham Moseley privately expressed concerns about losing players to Wasps. However, having spoken to various management and playing staff at both clubs it seems these fears are to date unfounded.

Presumably in another attempt to calm speculation regarding the seeming lack of progress, Wasps charismatic and well-known former kitman Pudsey Bevan who has retained a role with the new club in charge of the training facilities currently being used by football club Birmingham City has tweeted that the re-establishment of the club’s social media presence is being slowed by issues with the receiver.

Along with the reported presence in the background of former big-names stars such as Kenny Logan this gives fans a straw to clutch at even in the face of a proposal which could be described as déjà vu all over again.

But things could be worse – since as Yogi allegedly also once said: “Things ain’t over ‘til they’re over.”



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