When Lee Blackett first took charge of Wasps in 2020, he couldn’t have imagined the two-and-a-half years that have passed since Dai Youngs’ departure left him as interim head coach.
Stepping into the hot seat at Wasps after a disappointing start to that campaign, after lockdown, the former Rotherham Titans boss led his team to the Gallagher Premiership final.
Losing 19-13 to Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham, it was very nearly a fairy-tale for the club, who were appearing in their second final since their move to Coventry in 2014.
After a short break, and in his first full season in charge, Blackett’s side would finish in eighth before ending last year in ninth.
To the here and now and much of this interview began on his Tuesday afternoon press conference when Blackett was asked how he spent his summer.
In his response, the 39-year-old would laugh as he mentioned going on tour with the Wasps Legends to La Manga, a four-day trip that he describes as both a ‘stag do’ and a work trip in the same breath.
In addition to that, and a seven-day holiday with his family, Blackett also spoke about how he has been learning from rugby league outfits Leeds Rhinos and Hull KR, along with England Rugby.
Blackett stated why it was a good moment to further his personal development: “It is the first time in a few years where I have felt in a position and felt in a mental headspace to go out and really look to try and improve myself."
View this post on Instagram
So, when speaking to Blackett, it felt only right to ask why he has taken this approach during the off-season.
“I had three games before lockdown when I was interim, and I finally took charge during lockdown,” he said. “That gave me a lot of good headspace. Then we have a big run to the final, then from there we have two-and-a-half weeks until we play our next game, and you have to come off the emotion of the run that we had to get to the final, then the following season pick up loads of injuries and niggles.
“I wasn’t on my own. You couldn’t get out, could you? You couldn’t have distractions. My distractions are things like my daughter going swimming or my daughter playing rugby. I’d go and watch her and things like that weren’t happening.
“Outside of that, at home, I’m thinking about rugby, I am doing rugby. You don’t have things like that, you couldn’t get out and you just got to the end of that season and I was gone.
“I had given so much energy to the past whatever [amount of time] as everyone else had, but there was no getaway. I just felt that headspace-wise at the end of that season, I just wanted to get away on holiday and just needed a couple of weeks [in 2021].
“Then by the time I got back, you couldn’t get into clubs [to visit]. You couldn’t do any of that, so there was also restrictions in that. This time off this year, I felt in a really good headspace where I was. I didn’t feel like there was an end-of-season feel, and I think anyone that stands still in this game will get left behind and for me, I wanted fresh ideas.”
Thanks to that time in other environments, Blackett has returned to the club’s brand new training facility at Henley-In-Arden and implemented some changes. This has included tweaking some things in the gym, nothing wholesale, but enough to keep things fresh.
Citing the now-sacked Tony Smith as a great help to him during his time with Hull KR, Blackett says when he was with Leeds Rhinos, he delved into the club’s winning past.
??"You go back to that Exeter game at the start of the season. We lost, but the team received a standing ovation. The supporters understood the situation."— Wasps Rugby (@WaspsRugby) June 8, 2022
?? Season Review | An Interview With Lee Blackett ??https://t.co/FCJjlkcAzr pic.twitter.com/lmjI1gySPR
“Jamie Jones-Buchanan gave me his time,” Blackett said. “I was speaking to Jamie more about him being involved in that Leeds Rhinos team with the legends. They had this big academy group when he came through with Rob Burrows, Danny McGuire, Kevin Sinfield joined at a young age, you had that group come through and the squad was built around them.
“I probably look at the Tom Willis’, Gabriel Oghre’s, Charlie Atkinson’s, Alfie Barbeary’s, that group we have got, and we want to build the squad around them.
“I spent a lot of time looking at dynasties in teams, even looking at football teams like Liverpool. I spent loads of time just looking at them, and different sports.
“There is loads of things you can steal all the time and look at improving. It is something I did loads of, and I like to think I am better for that.”
In an interview in December 2020, Wasps’ head of recruitment Kevin Harman referenced how he hoped that Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones, Christian Wade, Elliot Daly and Joe Simpson would be a similar nucleus of player.
With an Academy stacked full of talent, there is the potential for more homegrown names to join that of the four players Blackett previously mentioned in the years to come.
In terms of preparing for the impending 2022/23 season, the Wasps boss has not only looked back on how his team fared last year but even on his own performance – aided by a former player.
“We reflected on the season, and we had loads of injuries at the start,” Blackett said. “We felt like we had to alter our game slightly more around the kicking and we became really good. We spent a lot of time around that, so we got positives within that.
“Our skill level has always been good, but it dropped off, and it let us down in the big games last season. Things like that which we almost at times felt like we were losing the path that we were on.
“You’re the first person I’ve really said it to, but I felt like we weren’t clear 100 per cent on where we were going. So, coming at the end of the season, you are reflecting, and you are going ‘did we just lose ourselves a little bit?’ and it was silly little things like podcasts.
“I don’t do podcasts. I don’t normally do them, but James Haskell asked me to. I know Hask really well, so I did one. We were talking within that, and he was talking to me about what I was like as a coach to him.
“He was talking about confidence and the number one thing I would want to give a player is confidence. To hear him say that, I am going ‘oof, am I doing that consistently with our players at the moment?’.
“Just doing that actually improved me in that moment and refocused me on being the coach I want to be. I want us to work really hard on our skillset, so I can be the coach I want to be and give players confidence.
“If I see a problem on the field, I am going to try and fix it. It was a good reset button for me just doing something along those lines and that’s what we have done and we have been really clear on our identity, and where we are going forward.
“We don’t feel like we are where we need to be yet but being dead clear that we are going after being skilful, we are going after set-piece – you can see with our recruitment where we are going, adding to a couple of things as well.
“Our lineout was very good. It was ranked number one in attack and defence last year, our maul at the backend of the season was right up there with the best. It was just scrum time we probably let ourselves down. A couple more additions, some of the younger guys getting older, we should be better in that area.”
Starting their season against Gloucester, Wasps will have their work cut out against a side that competed at the top of the league for much of last year.
Add to that the club’s own financial difficulties, which led to a freeze in recruitment, and it is difficult to know if this side is even the finished article at this stage.
So far, the recruitment of Vincent Koch, John Ryan and Will Haydon-Wood are the club’s main bits of business, while the retention of Francois Hougaard and signing of Cam Dodson from America are shrewder moves.
In signing the two tightheads, Wasps have made it clear that they are toughening up. It was perhaps their biggest let down at times, although keeping their key players fit was also a struggle.
Whatever the case, their head coach is renewed and looking forward to the challenges ahead.
Widely regarded as the most competitive rugby union league in the world...it can only be the Gallagher Premiership.
The division is becoming more and more exciting as each year passes by so who will be lifting silverware at Twickenham in May?
At Talking Rugby Union, we aim to provide match reports and news together with our specially commissioned features and interviews.