THE ENGAGING NIGEL MELVILLE HAS BEEN THE DRIVING FORCE AT WASPS FOR THE PAST SIX YEARS. SO WHAT EXACTLY IS IT LIKE BEING THE PREMIERSHIP’S LONGEST SERVING DIRECTOR OF RUGBY?
He picks the team, he guides the team, he motivates the team; he’s the whistle on the training ground, the mirror in the dressing room and the quote in tomorrow morning’s newspaper. He oversees the coaching and the coaches, the strength and conditioning programme, the medical staff, the video analysis, the player data, the nutrition strategy and an academy of eighty kids. And that’s just in the morning.
He hires players, fires players and haggles with agents. He has an input into the marketing strategy, the communications strategy and the Wasps’ website; he draws up budgets, he sits on the Board and when he first arrived he used to book the team bus and run the bath after training. Indeed you could say Nigel Melville’s done everything there is to do at Wasps apart from clean the toilets, although if you did, you’d be wrong.
‘Ah, yes, well that was a Youth Development Plan we had going a few years ago,’ he says, ‘we invited a lot of kids from schools in Brent up to our clubhouse in Sudbury and – how can I put it – they left a bit of a mess, so much so that the cleaners walked out in disgust and I ended up swabbing out the toilets.’ He pauses – his expression halfway between a grimace and a smile – before shrugging his shoulders. ‘Gotta be done.’
You can only assume he enjoys his job because he’s in his sixth season running the ship at Wasps; in fact he’s the longest serving boss in the Premiership and he has the wrinkles to prove it. ‘I was actually a brunette when I started or, at least, I think I was,’ he says, ruefully running a hand past his greying temples, ‘but it’s been great and I’ve loved every minute of it. You have your ups and downs but every day you learn something new. I think winning things are the big highlights and losing things have been the big lows but over the whole six years, it’s been a fantastic way of life.‘
Success in coaching was once defined as keeping the ten players who think you’re a steaming idiot away from the ten players who’re undecided. Melville’s approach seems to be to speak softly but carry a big stick. ‘Losing it in the changing room is great for me but I don’t think it does a lot for the players or for the next performance,’ he says. ‘I suppose it lets them know how I feel about things but if you do that every week it just becomes oh, here we go, bang on the door, scream and shout and chuck a few tea-cups at people. I don’t think it has the right impact.’
‘That said when it’s required, the ranting does seem to come quite naturally; all that venom that builds up during the week, I suppose. It’s just something that now and again has to be done. Certain truths have to be told and the way you deliver that is important; sometimes you’ll do that very quietly and very precisely and other times you’ll just totally lose it.’
It’s his team who’re – unfortunately – losing it at the moment, last week’s reverse at the dreaded Harlequins being their third defeat in a row; yes, Dallaglio, Volley, Birkett, Scrivener, Wood, King and Logan are all injured but that doesn’t excuse the fact that his team are playing like turkeys. No question, Nigel Melville is beginning to feel a little heat.
‘You get letters, you get abuse at games when things aren’t going well and you have to take that,’ says Melville. ‘And that’s fair enough. The supporters pay good money to come and watch and that money – in turn – pays our wages so they have a right to expect top-class performances and, if we’re not delivering, they’re entitled to have a go.’
There’s no doubt you need a patient wife, a loyal dog, and an understanding boss in this job and not necessarily in that order. Nigel Melville has a meeting next week with the Wasps’ owner Chris Wright: in truth, more of a summons than a meeting. ‘Yeah, I’ll expect to take a bit of a kicking when we get together and rightly so,’ he says. ‘I’m paid to make the team perform and we’re not performing so I have to take that. I can’t really complain, can I?’
The job certainly tests your patience and your ingenuity, both of which – mercifully – Nigel Melville seems to have in spades. For example, persuading All Black Ian Jones to come out of retirement and play for Wasps was actually the easy part. The clever part was having the idea in the first place.
‘I was talking to an agent and he said to me, ‘what kind of second row are you after?’ and I said, ‘well, a sort of an Ian Jones sort of player’ and then I thought to myself, well, what’s Ian Jones doing these days? So I spoke to his agent and he put out a speculative email and got a very positive response and within a day we’d signed him and he was on his way.’
If resourcefulness is his great strength, his big weakness – it is said – is his inability to delegate. Last Tuesday evening, for example, he was at Ealing Council pleading for planning permission to build floodlights at the training ground. His view, though, is that if you want something done, do it yourself – he’s from Yorkshire – the kind of bloke who sees the job as a second marriage, though one which is unlikely to last ‘til death do us part.
‘I’d think that it’s highly unlikely that I’d still be here in another six years,’ he says. ‘I think you have a life expectancy at a club and that doesn’t just apply to me. The team would need fresh guidance and leadership and, yes, perhaps I’d be after another challenge myself by then. What I wouldn’t want to do is get into a situation where it all goes downhill and it becomes unpleasant, so, yes, there will be a time to move on and when that happens I’ll happily step aside and let someone else take it forward.’
As if he didn’t have enough to do – running the team, cleaning the toilets – he’s just started an MBA in Sports Management at Leicester University. You don’t have to be mad to be a Premiership Director of Rugby but it does seem to help.
27 SEPTEMBER 2001