Wasps: Can rugby club's move to Coventry create a buzz?

Former England and Coventry winger David Duckham and ex-England and current Wasps fly-half Andy Goode
David Duckham was an England star while playing for Coventry, while Andy Goode played for the club's junior sides

The origin of the phrase "sent to Coventry" is unknown but its meaning is unequivocal: it's a way of ostracising or ignoring someone.

That is how many Wasps' supporters feel after learning about the club's controversial move from High Wycombe to the West Midlands.

Petitions, protests and colourfully written blogs have helped them make their point.

One despairing fan, writing in the Guardian, likened it to "taking a banana tree out of Kew Gardens and expecting it to grow in the middle of nowhere on the Scottish moors".

No one really knows what awaits Wasps in Coventry - but Andy Goode has a better idea than most.

The 34-year-old fly-half, who has started every game for Wasps this season, was born in the city. He went to school there and signed for Coventry Rugby Club when he was 16.

Too young to play in the first XV, he turned out for the Colts.

"I was tiny back then," he said, "I remember walking into the physio room and seeing [former England second row] Danny Grewcock lying on the bench and being absolutely petrified.

Winger Paul Sackey goes past Northampton scrum-half Mark Robinson in Wasps Heineken Cup semi-final win at the Ricoh in 2007
Wasps played a couple of Heineken Cup games at the Ricoh in 2007

"Once you started following rugby in Coventry you began to realise the history of the club.

"My uncle [John Quick] also played at full-back for them, so it was always drilled into me how big a deal it was.

"The big thing was getting to the Coventry Schools' Cup Final because that meant you got to play at Coundon Road, on the same pitch as so many of the greats who played in there in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

"Everyone still talks about [ex-England winger] David Duckham - but there were some absolute legends around during that time."

As with many of the city's brightest talents, Goode and Grewcock were soon snapped up by bigger professional clubs.

Grewcock played in the second row for Saracens, Bath and England, while Goode won four successive Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups during two spells at Leicester.

He also picked up 17 England caps and is second on the list of all-time Premiership points scorers.

Goode and Grewcock were among a generation of players from the city who were inspired by the great Coventry sides of the amateur era, which begs the question: could Wasps inspire another?

The Coventry production line

For all the talk of soulless franchises and MK Dons, Wasps will be based in a city where rugby union is, as Goode says, "in the blood".

Junior clubs such as Barkers' Butts helped to produce England internationals such as current blind-side flanker Tom Wood, 2003 World Cup-winning open-side flanker Neil Back, and one-cap prop Rob Hardwick - plus current Scotland second row Jim Hamilton.

Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill played for Coventry in the early nineties and fellow Tigers front-rower and England international Darren Garforth was born in the city.

Shane Geraghty and Leon Lloyd came through the impressive schools system and went on to play for England, while Adam Balding and James Grindal both played for England Saxons - the national second XV.

But it's not just the recent generations that have excelled - a who's who of internationals have represented Coventry since the club was founded in 1874.

The president of Coventry RFC, former England full-back Peter Rossborough, is among them, having won what became known as the John Player Cup in 1973 and 1974 in arguably the club's greatest side.

England flanker Tom Wood hands off New Zealand hooker Keven Mealamu
England flanker Wood came out of Coventry's Barkers Butts club but found success elsewhere

The 66-year-old said: "I know this sounds incredible but we would beat [10-time English champions] Leicester and [reigning Premiership champions] Northampton on a regular basis by large scores.

"We played all the top Welsh sides, which was unusual for English teams at the time.

"The internationals were always asterisked on team sheets and sometimes we would have 13, 14 or 15. The great names dripped off the tongue."

Perhaps the greatest of them all remains Duckham, now 68, a centre turned winger who oozed pace and grace.

Duckham said: "It is a bold move by Wasps and good luck to them.

"There was always going to be a situation where somebody would get hold of the Ricoh Arena.

"I think what the current Coventry rugby club will worry about is Wasps unwittingly stealing their supporters.

"Who will be able to resist watching top-level rugby?"

Financial pressure in the professional age

In Duckham's day, when a top-flight football team also played in the city, Coventry's rugby side played in front of 6,000 people crammed into Coundon Road.

Home is now the Butts Park Arena, where they moved in the relatively early phases of professionalism in 2004.

Like Wasps, Coventry have struggled financially since the game turned professional in 1995. They have been in administration three times, narrowly avoiding liquidation in 2009.

Duckham said: "Even during my time we struggled to adapt to modern methods.

"We weren't prepared for market forces and the competitive nature of the game.

"There was a real struggle to introduce professional coaching and a refusal to accept change.

Coventry and ex-Coventry players capped by England
Robin Prescott - prop, 6 caps, 1937-39; Ivor Preece - England captain & fly-half, 12 caps, 1948-51; British & Irish Lions 1 cap; Fenwick Allison -full-back, 7 caps, 1956-58; Phil Judd - England captain & prop, 22 caps, 1962-67; Peter Robbins - flanker, 19 caps, 1956-62; Peter Jackson - wing, 20 caps, 1956-63, British Lions 5 caps; Thomas Pargetter - lock, 3 caps, 1962-63; Keith Fairbrother - prop, 12 caps, 1969-71; David Duckham - centre/wing, 36 caps, 1969-76; British Lions 3 caps; Harold Wheatley (the only player to represent England in all three rows of the scrum) - prop, 7 caps, 1936-1939; Rodney Webb - wing, 12 caps, 1967-72; Chris Wardlow - centre, 6 caps, 1969-71; John Owen - lock, 14 caps, 1963-67; Fran Cotton - prop, 31 caps, 1971-81, British Lions 7 caps; Peter Rossborough - full-back, 7 caps, 1971-75, Peter Preece - centre, 12 caps, 1972-76; Steve Brain - hooker, 13 caps, 1984-86; Danny Grewcock - lock, 69 caps, 1997-2007, British Lions 5 caps; Rob Hardwick - prop, 1 cap, 1996; Andy Goode - fly-half, 17 caps, 2005-09; Leon Lloyd - wing/centre, 5 caps, 2000-01; Richard Cockerill - hooker, 27 caps, 1997-99; Shaun Perry - wing/centre, 5 caps, 2000-01; Tom Johnson - back row, 8 caps, 2012-14

"Having refused to accept the need to run things better, we were cruelly exposed when the game went professional."

Coventry now attract an average crowd of around 1,500 in National League One, the third tier of English rugby, although that compares favourably with the attendances of many clubs in the second-tier Championship.

Rossborough, who describes the club's supporters as "incredibly loyal", added: "The city has been starved of top-level sport for some time, so I would hope there are a lot of sport-loving people out there who will be attracted by the glamour of the Premiership.

"Wasps strike me as a very professional and well-organised outfit, so I can see them doing well here."

The future hasn't always looked so bright for Wasps.

In April 2013, the club was reportedly an hour from administration before it was saved by current owner, Irish businessman Derek Richardson.

They were losing around £3m a year in High Wycombe, a figure which former coach Shaun Edwards said they were losing even when they were winning Premiership and European titles in the mid-2000s.

By negotiating a deal with Coventry city council for their 50% share of the Ricoh Arena, Wasps acquired the second biggest turnover of any rugby club in Europe, behind French giants Toulouse.

Divided loyalties

Former player and head coach Rob Smith, the long-serving academy manager at Wasps until he left in 2013, has been among those urging fans to turn their backs on the club and instead support its amateur side, Wasps FC, still based in West London.

Writing in the Rugby Paper he criticised them for "blanking the fans" and "disregarding the emotional bond" it has with them.

Whether Wasps can persuade their existing fans up the M40, or build a new fanbase in Coventry, are among the many questions waiting to be answered.

Goode said: "We are not going to a fill a 32,000 capacity stadium straight away - but I don't think the Ricoh will be empty.

"Thousands of people live in the area who work for Land Rover [Wasps' new sponsor] and I know there are plans for a big marketing campaign.

"You get a sense, the more people you speak to in the area, that they are very positive about the Wasps move."

The Midlands already has its fair share of big clubs.

Massed ranks of Leicester fans at the 2013 Premiership final
East midlands giants Leicester are thought to be unconcerned about their huge fan base being affected

East Midlands duo Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints are confident of their support remaining unaffected by the Wasps move, but there is some disquiet at Sixways, home to Worcester.

For the time being the Wasps Academy is remaining in London - but Worcester Warriors have sought clarification from the RFU about how a move might affect the £1.5m investment they have recently put into rugby development in the west Midlands.

In May, they opened six academy centres in Birmingham, Coventry and Warwick - the latter is also home to one of the best rugby schools in the country, Warwick School.

Coventry president Rossborough added: "I think the basic physical talent is still available in the area - but fewer schools than ever are now playing rugby and a lot of junior clubs are struggling to put out two or three teams when years ago they would be putting out half a dozen.

"All the best players locally now get snapped up by the RFU academy programme and Worcester - but a talent pool is still available, and so is the spectator pool."

A precedent for clubs moving

Wasps' is on 21 December, against London Irish, another club who play in a purpose-built ground miles from their original home.

They have been based at the 24,000-capacity Madejski Stadium in Reading since 2000.

Last season their average attendance was 9,500 and in a Rugby World poll in 2010 it was voted "the best environment in which to watch rugby".

Goode, whose contract at Wasps runs out in June, added of Coventry: "I know the area. Young kids in the city will want to watch top-level rugby - it's in the blood there.

"There are a lot of people who want to see us succeed, but others will want to see us play in an empty stadium.

"It's up to us to embed ourselves in the area - in the schools and the community - to help the club grow.

"Wasps will want a partnership with Coventry. We'll loan them young players from our first team and they will get a brilliant pathway to develop and move to the Premiership."

Time will tell whether the dominant club side in the England is once again based in the city.

They won't be Coventry in name, but they might be Coventry in nature.

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