Derek Richardson puts the buzz back into Wasps

An Irishman is the driving force behind the rebirth of one of English rugby’s great clubs, says Julian Bennetts.

Derek Richardson puts the buzz back into Wasps

The most important man in Wasps’ recent history is not Lawrence Dallaglio, Warren Gatland or Phil Vickery.

Instead, it is a publicity-shy businessman who was born in Cork, grew up in Dublin and made his money in insurance.

Those close to him suggest he would play down his influence in the resurrection of Wasps, but the club is already unrecognisable in the 20 months since Derek Richardson became principal shareholder.

“Until Derek came in it was starting to look like a bit of a suicide mission,” laughs director of rugby Dai Young when asked to assess the impact the Irishman has had on the two-time Heineken Cup champions.

Young may laugh, but two years ago the situation was deadly serious. On the verge of being served with a winding up order, the club was making annual losses of €4m and had debts of €1.3m.

The root cause was their unhappy tenancy at Adams Park in High Wycombe. The club had been denied planning permission to build a new stadium in the area and owner Steve Hayes wanted out.

The financial tap was turned off, and the club’s descent began in earnest. Relegation – avoided by just a point in 2011/12 — probably would have sounded the club’s death-knell.

“We didn’t know if we would have a club at the end of the season and we didn’t know if we would get paid at some points,” remembers wing Christian Wade.

A consortium attempted to buy Hayes out. They had been put in touch with Richardson; when their bid fell through he purchased the club himself.

Now, the days of Young paying for the team coach out of his own pocket, as he had to do on one occasion, seem a lifetime ago.

Richardson has led the club into a defiant new era, ignoring the critics – and there were plenty of them — and purchasing the Ricoh Arena in Coventry as the club works to move lock-stock-and-barrel to the Midlands.

Leinster visit Wasps’ new home in their winner-takes-all European Champions Cup clash today, and it provides the chance to reflect on what has already been a remarkable journey under Richardson’s ownership.

“Two years ago we had no money, no shirt sponsor and were tenants in a fourth division football ground,” says chief executive Nick Eastwood.

“Now we own the best stadium in European if not world rugby and are starting on the journey to self-sustainability. We have gone from almost last in terms of facilities and assets to first.

“I’m not sure if it’s unique in world sport and I wouldn’t want to claim that, but I can’t think of anyone else who has done it so quickly where the transition has been so sudden.”

Richardson has been the driving force behind it all. He took over his father’s insurance business aged 24 before setting up 123.ie. It is estimated he earned €35m when he sold 66% of the company to Royal & Sun Alliance four years ago.

A passionate rugby fan who was a regular at Wanderers rugby club in Dublin with his father, Herbie, he had no prior connection to Wasps and was seemingly just moved by the club’s plight and determined not to let it go under.

“Derek is a huge rugby fan and understood the legacy, history and traditions of Wasps,” says Eastwood. “It was a once-great club that had fallen on hard times and he was determined to take it back to where it came from.”

He is certainly not in it for the publicity. Eastwood, Young and the club’s players talk of a man who is warm and generous with his time but prefers to avoid the limelight.

Instead, he regularly visits the training ground in west London, where he attempts to spend 20 minutes with each member of staff discussing rugby and their well-being.

If a player is getting married he calls up others at the club for advice on a personalised gift instead of a toaster or set of cutlery.

Young receives texts at 7am and 9am most Monday mornings, pepping him up for the next week and the next challenge. “It’s the little things,” says Young. “For example, we had a Christmas party and he said to everyone ‘bring the kids’. Then he puts on babysitters. Or he’ll call my wife and ask us to dinner. He doesn’t have a PA so he’ll do it all himself. He is not doing it for fame and he doesn’t want to pick the team. He is a dream come true for a director of rugby.”

In fact, you sense some at the club would rather Richardson took more credit for his work – but it is simply not his style.

“He would be mortified if anyone wheeled him out in front of the fans and he had to wave to them,” laughs Eastwood. “That’s just not the sort of person he is.”

Instead, he jokes about having a special tie made for this afternoon, with blue for Leinster on one side and black-and-gold for Wasps on the other.

“There is an awful lot of emotion, and a very strong sense of pride and satisfaction,” says Eastwood when asked to assess what he and Richardson will be feeling against Leinster.

Certainly, the Irishman’s place in Wasps’ history is secure.

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