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Wasps' re-emergence raises more questions than it answers

By Paul Smith
(Photo by Getty Images)

Despite the club’s 2022 collapse with reported debts of over £100 million, the spectre of Wasps has never quite gone away.

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And the arrival via the club’s social media accounts of a headline claiming readers are just one click away from “the latest on our recovery” has quickly reopened plenty of old wounds.

This first post by the club – which is now under new ownership and management – since late 2022 offers little by way of hard news. In truth it seems more of a fishing expedition to ascertain what kind of interest the brand retains.

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Rhys Patchell on his move to the Highlanders in Super Rugby

Former Scarlets and Wales number ten Rhys Patchell told RugbyPass’s Finn Morton about how his move to New Zealand came about.

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Rhys Patchell on his move to the Highlanders in Super Rugby

Former Scarlets and Wales number ten Rhys Patchell told RugbyPass’s Finn Morton about how his move to New Zealand came about.

While no financial input is sought, by asking interested parties to “pledge” their commitment Wasps gain a marketing database plus a headcount estimate that they can brandish in front of English rugby’s governing body as they make a case for inclusion in the RFU’s mooted Premiership Two.

Given the club’s recent history, by claiming they have “core sustainable finance and a stadium in which to play” without providing concrete evidence of either, reaction has inevitably been mixed.

Based on social media, for every die hard black-and-gold fan who retain affection for the former European champions and interest in their future there are plenty of sceptics plus more than a few whose anger over the jettisoned £100 million-plus of debt is palpable.

Those reading this outside England may not appreciate the level of antipathy towards the RFU which currently exists among players, administrators and supporters of the largely semi-pro and amateur clubs operating below the Premiership.

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And the next part of Wasps’ release: “All we are waiting for is a competition to join that will allow us to compete at the highest level” – pours plenty of fuel on these flames.

It requires very little by way of intuition to work out they either already have or are very close to securing a guaranteed spot in the Premiership Two competition which the RFU sees as the future. That situation instantly closes the door on the ambitions of one hopeful (and solvent) club while simultaneously sending the message that however badly a rugby business fails if you are one of the chosen few there is always a shortcut back to the top.

Dallaglio Wasps BT Sport podcast concussion
Wasps’ Lawrence Dallaglio and Paul Volley (Photo by Dave Rogers/Allsport)

Put another way, while the likes of Richmond, Orrell, West Hartlepool, Rugby Lions and London Welsh – all former inmates of English rugby’s top flight – have been required to start again at the bottom of the ladder following financial implosion, it seems increasingly likely that an exception is being made here.

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Given that the Championship clubs are in many cases already being dragged kicking and screaming towards Premiership Two, this piles on the agony. Three years on, their central funding remains at around 25 per cent of its pre-COVID level and the initial Premiership Two financial offer from the RFU is reportedly below even that level.

Add in the loss of face required to apply for a place in a league in which you already play and the question of whether merit-based promotion and relegation will ever return and it is easy to see why they are upset.

Wasps go on to tell their social media followers  that their future league administrators must “share our values.”

Whoever thought attempting to claim the moral high ground around values was a good idea has clearly not taken very long to understand the club’s recent history and how this may chime with those affected.

In December 2022 BBC Coventry & Warwickshire’s Simon Gilbert’s investigation confirmed: “Big losers were Wasps bondholders, who faced total losses of £27.8m.” These were often small investors and longtime fans from the club’s West London and Wycombe days.

He also reported that 40 local Coventry businesses were owed significant sums while catering suppliers Delaware West and Compass collectively wrote off around £12 million.

In various guises, the UK government was owed £21 million while former owner Derek Richardson has lost £17 million of his own money.

RFU regulations insist that a phoenix club being reborn from the ashes of a collapsed entity repays its “rugby-related debt” which includes outstanding wages. However, there are no rules governing much of what is owed, so it is entirely likely that the Wasps ‘newco’ has simply left behind a sum over £90 million.

Wasps
Press Association

Without wanting to bore sports lovers with English corporate law, ‘pre-pack administration’ of this type allows administrators handling the assets of a collapsed firm to sell it as a going concern in order to raise funds for the outstanding creditors and avoid redundancies. This pre-pack has saved almost no jobs and cleared very little of the debt.

If the league to which Wasps refer is Premiership Two are these really the values to which the rest of the clubs aspire?

For those saying Wasps are now a new organisation that happens to have the same name and should therefore be free from the sins of its father, consider that it is owned by Chris Holland. For the last couple of years of Wasps’ existence in Coventry, Mr Holland was its chief operating officer which puts him right at the heart of everything that went on.

A photograph of Lawrence Dallaglio also adorns this latest release. He was of course captain of Wasps when the club lifted English Premiership and Heineken Cup titles in the 1990’s. He was also a non-executive director of the failed company and the man who live on BT Sport said they should be treated as a special case.

So where does all this leave us? With more questions than answers.

If Wasps intend to build a ground in Kent how are they funding it and is there any public money involved? In the meantime how will the rugby clubs based in or around Worcester, Barnet, Oxford, Solihull, Henley-in-Arden or any of the myriad of other possible venues which have been put forward respond to the interim arrival of a competitor club with all this baggage?

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Why would the RFU ignore their previous consistency around failed clubs and wave Wasps straight into a newly-constructed Premiership Two? Will they also do it for Worcester or London Irish or Jersey Reds? And why would they bend over backwards to accommodate a car crash of a business that has left a trail of debt instead of properly funding Championship (or even National One) clubs that have operated within their means.

Above all – whatever the letter of the law says – how can any governing body turn a blind eye to the scale of debts which are simply being airbrushed out of history?

I thought my last Wasps story was written some time ago, but like those who invested in their bond it seems I am guilty of poor judgement.

About the author: RugbyPass columnist Paul Smith covered Wasps for the Coventry Telegraph then worked for the club as its press officer.

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