‘First impression everyone had was of this guy whose b ****** s were hanging out of his pants!’: The inside story of head coach Lee Blackett turning Wasps into Premiership finalists
- Blackett led Wasps to the Premiership Final with 13 wins in 15 games
- Its success is largely based on the emergence of young talent like Jack Willis
- Wasps face European champions Exeter in the final in Twickenham on Saturday
As a player, Lee Blackett was never destined to become one of the poster boys of English rugby. He struggled to take off his left hand, had an uncomfortable running style, and did not enjoy the gym. Even his teammates raised an eyebrow when he was picked up by Rotherham as a teenager.
“He had a real baby face and blond hair brushed back,” recalls Andy Northey, then Rotherham’s player-coach. “At the start of his very first session with the seniors, we were kind of warming up… kneeling, stretching the hamstrings. Lee had appeared in his shorts and a pair of real loose boxer shorts. He got out in this lunge and the first impression everyone had was of this guy whose b ******* hung from the bottom of his shorts! ‘
From then on, Blackett was fondly known as ‘knackers’ by his teammates. Rather than working on the family farm outside Preston, he forged a career as a club player, cutting his teeth in the old-fashioned backwaters of English rugby.
Coach Lee Blackett led Wasps to the Premiership Final with 13 wins in 15 games
“He didn’t look very good physically, but he learned quickly and was a very good person,” Northey adds. Some guys look like they were born with a rugby ball in their hands, but Lee wasn’t one of them. His career was not based on natural talent. He gave everything he had and always got the job done. He was seven out of ten every week. The boys wanted to play with him. He had a very good understanding of the game and a good way of interacting with people. ‘
Blackett’s real calling has come as a coach, but he still has fond memories of those days in Rotherham. ‘I was a skint student and couldn’t afford cycling shorts at the time,’ he laughs.
“I learned a lot about the mental side of the game at Rotherham,” he says. “We tore up every day, no matter what number shirt you wore. Andy Northey loved us to argue and he tried to create a hard, physical lead. There was a we-against-the-world mentality. ‘
Before taking his first coaching role with Rotherham, Blackett played at Leeds, who was coached by Stuart Lancaster. He scored the fastest ever attempt in the Premier League – in 8.28 seconds – while playing with a collapsed lung.
“Stuart taught me an awful lot about culture,” he says. ‘Leeds was a team that went up and down between the premier league and the championship. We were constantly scrapping, so attitude and every little detail had to be 100 percent to give you a shot at winning. Stuart looked at the things that didn’t require talent: diving on loose balls, getting up quickly. I was involved in teams that got nothing, like Leeds, so that probably shaped me as a coach. ‘
The team’s success is largely based on the emergence of young talent like Jack Willis
Blackett joined Wasps in 2015 as an assistant coach, at the age of 32. He formed the attack on Wasps under Dai Young and, more recently, was responsible for the turnaround of the club, following Young’s departure in February.
Having inherited a struggling squad, ninth in the league, Blackett guided Wasps to the Premiership finals with 13 wins in 15 games. The team’s success is largely based on the emergence of young talent: Jack Willis, Jacob Umaga and Alfie Barberry, among others.
‘Beforehand, there was so much pressure in the area,’ says Blackett. ‘If we play badly, it makes no sense to talk about it all week. Everyone has had a huge say in how we’ve changed things. I feel a little uncomfortable when I get compliments because everyone from Joe Launchbury to the youngest guys comes up with ideas and we just pick the best. ‘
So, what were the most idiosyncratic ideas? “We try to make it fun,” he says. Richard Blaze [forwards coach] does our Monday morning review as a bedtime story for kids. Sitting in the front with a book, talking about his little Bumble Bees. Matt Everard [skills coach] has somehow found a way to use ‘adult videos’ for visualizations in tactics meetings … but I probably shouldn’t get into that. Our main thing is to enjoy it. ‘
This Saturday will be the ultimate test of Blackett’s methods. “We want to enjoy it and maximize everyone’s potential,” he says. Matt Everard is the unsung hero in our area because he came through these guys like Jack and Alfie. It would really hurt me if I saw someone leave Wasps and become a better player at another club.
‘I remember how nervous I was when I made my debut with Rotherham. These days I would say to a young boy on debut, ‘I don’t care if you make mistakes. Go out and get the man of the match. I want everyone to leave this ground and talk about how good you are. ‘