Lee Blackett, the Wasps head coach, had barely slept when the first test result arrived at just after 2.30am on Wednesday. The text message came from the club physio, Ali James, who himself had barely slept at all from the moment, eight days earlier, when the club were forced to lock down when a routine Covid-19 screening had returned positives for four players and three members of staff.
The stakes could not have been higher. A second round of testing last Saturday had revealed four more positive tests, three players and one member of staff. Even though two of these turned out to be false positives, Blackett’s understanding was that one more positive test from Tuesday’s testing would force Wasps to forfeit their place in Saturday's Premiership final against Exeter Chiefs.
Within 10 minutes of the first message, Blackett was finally able to let out a huge sigh of relief as James confirmed there had been no more positives.
Sleep would still elude Blackett though, as his thoughts immediately raced to resume preparations for the final.
“We have worked so hard all year to be in this position, the Premiership final is the pinnacle domestically and if it had been taken away it would have been pretty hard to take,” he said. “We had to show signs that we had cleaned up the environment and fair play to all the players and staff for all they have done. Ali has barely slept, neither have our team manager, Dave Bassett, or Ralph Mitchell, our doctor.
“You have to give our boys credit the way we instantly closed the whole place. We told the players that they had to isolate from each other, including their partners who might meet during the week. It has been an emotional week but now it is about being level-headed.”
It is not the first time this season that Blackett has been forced to keep a level head in the midst of a crisis, a key factor in the club’s meteoric rise over the last eight months. The 37-year-old still remembers like yesterday arriving at work on the morning of Tuesday, Feb 11, only to discover that the club’s long-standing director of rugby, Dai Young, had stepped down. By the end of the day, Blackett, just two years after his appointment as attack and backs coach, had been elevated to interim head coach.
“I did not go into work that day and expect to become head coach,” he recalled. “It was obviously a bit weird that Stephen Vaughan had emailed us as staff for the first time and asked for a meeting in the office. After the heads of department left, the coaches stayed on with the head of academy. Steve spoke about what was best going forward. He said we needed a hierarchy and needed someone to head it up in the short term and asked if I was happy to do it.”
It would prove to be a seminal decision.
Wasps were due to face Leicester Tigers four days later at Welford Road.
They lost 18-9 and slipped to ninth in the table. But the result also sparked an outpouring of soul-searching that would transform their season.
“Some truth was spoken,” Blackett added. “It became clear our confidence was shot. People had lost confidence in their ability and as a team we had lost our identity. We felt Leicester had imposed their game on us. We asked, ‘what was the identity we were going to impose on other teams?’
“To be fair we had young players speak up, and I remember Jacob [Umaga] being one of them. ‘I don’t know what our identity is,’ he said. We were rock bottom. We had gone from a team that had been used to scoring points at ease to a team that was starting to struggle to score points and was leaking points. We had lost our way.”
Blackett may have been a rookie Premiership head coach – his position was made permanent in April – but the reality was he has been developing his coaching skills from the age of 25 when he became coach of his former university, Sheffield Hallam, while he was still playing for Leeds.
It was at university that he was first picked up at a freshers’ game by Rotherham to join their academy and by the age of 23, a year after making his debut for the senior side, was named club captain. He returned to the club to become head coach at the age of just 30.
“It is something I always wanted to do. In the end I was looking forward more to the games I was coaching than the games I was playing in,” he added.
Playing for Stuart Lancaster, the future England head coach at Leeds, and his experience at Rotherham as a rookie, were key influences as was the ability to experiment as a university head coach.
A commitment to high standards for the basics and a focus on what the team was good at, rather than focusing on what they were struggling with, would be the foundation stones for the revolution at Wasps. The following Saturday, Wasps defeated Saracens 60-10 and have won every game since, a remarkable run taking the club to the verge of their first Premiership title since 2008.
“We felt we were very good around the breakdown, especially defensively, and we felt that when the game breaks up and is pretty loose, we felt our unstructured attack was up there as well,” Blackett added. “We put all our attention on those areas, as well as trying to improve the other things, but our point of difference, the way we were going to influence games was going to be our super-strengths.”
The Covid scare will test their resilience again. But with Blackett in charge, expect Wasps to fire their best shot at Twickenham.