‘The first impression everyone had was of this guy whose b******s were hanging out from the bottom of his shorts!’: The inside story on head coach Lee Blackett who has turned Wasps into Premiership finalists
- Blackett has guided Wasps to the Premiership final with 13 wins in 15 games
- Success has been built largely on the emergence of young talent like Jack Willis
- Wasps face European champions Exeter in the final at Twickenham on Saturday
As a player, Lee Blackett was never destined to become one of the poster boys of English rugby. He struggled to pass off his left hand, had an awkward running style and did not enjoy the gym. Even his teammates raised an eyebrow when he was picked up as a teenager by Rotherham.
‘He had a real baby face and brushed back blond hair,’ recalls Andy Northey, then Rotherham player-coach. ‘At the start of his very first session with the seniors, we were doing a bit of a warm up… kneeling down, stretching the hamstrings. Lee had turned up in his shorts and some real loose boxers. He stepped out into this lunge and the first impression everyone had was of this guy whose b******* were hanging out from the bottom of his shorts!’
From then on, Blackett was fondly known by his teammates as ‘knackers’. Rather than work on the family farm outside Preston, he forged a career as a club player and cut his teeth in the unfashionable backwaters of English rugby.
Coach Lee Blackett has guided Wasps to the Premiership final with 13 wins in 15 games
‘Physically, he didn’t look the part, but he learnt quickly and was a really good person,’ adds Northey. ‘Some guys look like they have been born with a rugby ball in theirs hands, but Lee wasn’t one of them. His career wasn’t built on natural talent. He gave everything he had and always got the job done. He was a seven out of 10 every week. The lads wanted to play with him. He had a really good understanding of the game and a good way with people.’
Blackett’s true calling has come as a coach, but he still has fond memories of those Rotherham days. ‘I was a skint student and couldn’t afford cycling shorts at the time,’ he says with a laugh.
‘I learned loads about the mental side of the game at Rotherham,’ he says. ‘We mauled every day, no matter what number shirt you wore. Andy Northey loved us to have a fight and he tried to create a hard, physical edge. There was an us-against-the-world mentality.’
Before taking up his first coaching role with Rotherham, Blackett played with Leeds, who were coached by Stuart Lancaster. He scored the Premiership’s fastest ever try – in 8.28 seconds – while playing with a collapsed lung.
‘Stuart taught me a hell of a lot about culture,’ he says. ‘Leeds were a team that were up and down between the Premiership and the Championship. We were constantly scrapping, so the attitude and every tiny little detail had to be 100 per cent to give you any chance of winning. Stuart looked at the things that didn’t require talent: diving on loose balls, getting back to your feet quickly. I was involved in teams that were given nothing, like Leeds, so that’s probably shaped me as a coach.’
The team’s success has been built largely on the emergence of young talent like Jack Willis
Blackett joined Wasps as an assistant coach in 2015, at the age of 32. He shaped Wasps’ attack under Dai Young and, more recently, has been in charge of the club’s turnaround, following Young’s departure in February.
Having inherited a struggling squad, ninth in the league, Blackett has guided Wasps to the Premiership final with 13 wins in 15 games. The team’s success has been built largely on the emergence of young talent: the likes of Jack Willis, Jacob Umaga and Alfie Barberry.
‘Beforehand, there was so much pressure in the environment,’ says Blackett. ‘If we play poorly, there’s no point in being down about it all week. Everyone has had a massive say in how we’ve turned things around. I feel a bit uncomfortable when I get praise because everyone, from Joe Launchbury to the youngest lads, offer up ideas and we just choose the best ones.’
So, what have been the quirkiest ideas? ‘We try to make it fun,’ he says. ‘Richard Blaze [forwards coach] does our Monday morning reviews like a children’s bedtime story. Sitting up at the front with a book, talking about his little Bumble Bees. Matt Everard [skills coach] has somehow found a way of using ‘adult videos’ for visualisations in tactics meetings… but I probably shouldn’t go into that. Our number one thing is to enjoy it.’
Next Saturday will provide the ultimate test of Blackett’s methods. ‘We want to enjoy it and maximise everyone’s potential,’ he says. ‘Matt Everard is the unsung hero in our environment because he’s brought through these lads 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 at Rotherham. These days, I would say to a young kid on debut: ‘I don’t care if you make mistakes. Go out there and get man of the match. I want everyone leaving this ground talking about how good you are’.’