Joe Launchbury exclusive interview: 'The RFU knew of Wasps' demise for five years'

Joe Launchbury, the England rugby player, who has just signed for Harlequins after leaving Wasps - Joe Launchbury exclusive interview: 'The RFU knew of Wasps' demise for years - Andrew Fox/Telegraph
Joe Launchbury, the England rugby player, who has just signed for Harlequins after leaving Wasps - Joe Launchbury exclusive interview: 'The RFU knew of Wasps' demise for years - Andrew Fox/Telegraph

By the time you read this Joe Launchbury will already be in Japan, bedding in with his new club Toyota Verblitz ahead of the start of the Japan Rugby League One season in the middle of December.

When Launchbury became enamoured with the Japanese people and their culture during the 2019 Rugby World Cup with England, both he and his wife, Mallory, openly wondered whether they might be able to return later in his career.

Never could they have imagined it would be in such desperate circumstances, with Wasps, the club which became a home to both of them over so many years, now a shell of the once great club which dominated professional rugby.

In his first interview since Wasps were placed into administration after facing debts of £112 million, Launchbury, with 177 appearances for the club over 12 years, recalls how he was reduced to tears as the news was delivered by an administrator that Wasps, as we know it, were no more.

"There was no noise, you could hear a pin drop. There was no shouting or annoyance. The air went out of the room. I cried during that meeting and found it extremely hard. It was the shock of how a club, which is 150 years old and with such a rich history, can be taken away from you in two sentences - we were going into administration, and we were all redundant. We will always have a bond, that group who were in the room that day."

Launchbury was originally invited to speak at last week's DCMS hearing into the demise of Wasps and Worcester Warriors, before that invitation for players to speak was withdrawn. This interview is therefore his first chance to speak publicly and while insisting that he is no "mudslinger" - "Rugby has given me everything I have", he adds - there is sheer disbelief and frustration at the way Wasps' spiral towards financial destruction was allowed to happen. And he does not hold back, particularly at the Rugby Football Union for watching from the sidelines as Wasps headed for destruction.

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"How a rugby club with the history of Wasps has been able to sleepwalk into this situation, I will never be able to understand or forgive how it has come to this. I guess it is pretty simple and obvious: the bond [£35m owed to shareholders] has been a massive factor in where Wasps are where they are, and that has been years in the making. They knew about it for five years - the club, the owners, the RFU.

"How they could allow that situation to tick down with an extremely obvious, clear stopwatch on it with a date when everything [had to be repaid]… I will never understand how it was allowed to happen. I don’t think anything anyone ever says to me will make me understand.

"There is definitely some blame there for the RFU. We have been on calls with them and they know there needs to be change. A lot of the guys from Premiership Rugby have not been in position for very long and are trying to change things which have been in place for a long time, so I’m not necessarily blaming them.

"They have sat down in front of us and told us ‘we have no powers over anything, view of anyone’s financials’. It is the equivalent of walking into a room and asking an owner if everything is alright and the owner replying, ‘yeah’. Hopefully that will change and there will be more governance."

Launchbury, don't forget, had been through this all before. Wasps faced financial oblivion back in 2012 but survived by the skin of their teeth. Speaking after a win over Bath back in September, he was more optimistic about the latest crisis than he had been a decade beforehand, despite the financial cloud hanging over the club's head. The players had no reason to think everything would not work out. They were the last to know.

Joe Launchbury, the England rugby player, who has just signed for Harlequins after leaving Wasps - - Andrew Fox/Telegraph
Joe Launchbury, the England rugby player, who has just signed for Harlequins after leaving Wasps - - Andrew Fox/Telegraph

"We found out that a few weeks before administration, the RFU had tried to suspend us and the club had managed to just about have the suspension lifted. But we, as players, did not know that. If we had known, would we have carried on playing? Guys almost certainly were injured in those games.

"Everyone has found it pretty hard to find employment, but the guys who are injured have found it really hard. People were injured in those last two to three weeks when in the background, suspensions were being lifted. And we the players knew nothing about it. That adds to the frustration."

As the club's captain, players would come to Launchbury in the hope that he knew more about the situation when really he was in the dark as much as anyone else. The focus of his sadness is not on his own career with the club ending. It's for the emerging crop of Wasps players, the talents who would take the club forward over the next decade, the academy prospects who dreamt of pulling on that famous shirt.

"Wasps were never just my employers, they were always more than that. We had a daughter in London but moved up here because of the club. We’ve made our home here and love living here. You feel a sense of burden of ‘you’ve brought them here, your career’. I never thought I would be a professional rugby player, play at the top of the game, and be made redundant," Launchbury explains.

"Everyone’s time at a club finishes and I was lucky to have 13 years with Wasps. Some of my great friends have had way shorter spells. I think about Sam Jones who came through the academy with me, his time was cut short in his mid-20s just as he was showing how good he could be. I knew with my age that I would hopefully play for a few more years, but if my career stopped through injury you would almost be thankful for the years I’d had, not cursing the time I had lost.

"My instant frustration, however, was for the guys who were at the start of their journey at Wasps, guys who the club should have been built around for the next 10, 15 years. And now that’s gone. They are never going to come back and play for Wasps in that group again.

"Charlie Atkinson, who in my mind is going to go on and have a fantastic career in the Premiership and most likely at international level, he should be at Wasps for the next decade leading that team. The Willis brothers. Sam Spink. You could name a load of that bunch in their mid-20s. I think of them, what could have been for them, what we were trying to build.

Wasps' Joe Launchbury during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bath Rugby and Wasps at Recreation - Joe Launchbury exclusive interview: 'The RFU knew of Wasps' demise for five years - Bob Bradford/Camera Sport
Wasps' Joe Launchbury during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Bath Rugby and Wasps at Recreation - Joe Launchbury exclusive interview: 'The RFU knew of Wasps' demise for five years - Bob Bradford/Camera Sport

"I think of the under-18s who I coached last year whose dream was to get a professional contract and pull on a shirt to play for Wasps. That won’t happen for them, or at least not for a period of time. Those are the bits that… yes, people were made redundant that day. But there are a whole load of people whose ambition was to pull on that shirt, and ex-players who look back on their time with the club, and all that history has gone."

It is hard to imagine Launchbury playing for any other club. He joined Wasps at 19 having originally planned to go to the University of Bath, hoping to play a few 'A' League games and potentially pick up a contract with Bath. Impressing for Worthing during his gap year changed those plans.

An offer came from Wasps which sat on his desk for "three, four months" as he weighed up whether to delay university or give rugby a go. "And I’m obviously so glad I did. As soon as I walked into Wasps that’s where I felt I belonged."

Within two years he was playing for England, but only after earning his stripes with Wasps. Richard Birkett and John Hart were notable mentors, with Launchbury relishing the old-school jobs handed out to him as an academy player.

"I understand things are different now and the game has become younger, but I enjoyed earning the respect of those guys, enjoyed doing the dodgy jobs around the club, cleaning boots, being on the team social serving their drinks for the night. It was a rite of passage into the first team. I loved it."

Playing for Toyota is likely to be a different experience. The move will be a "great adventure" as a family with Mallory, who is pregnant with their third child, and the couple's children joining Launchbury in Japan. By July he will be back in the Gallagher Premiership with Harlequins, returning to the club where he spent time as a teenager in the academy alongside Luke Wallace, Will Collier and Charlie Matthews.

Adding to his 70 England caps has not been ruled out. Eddie Jones invited him to train with the squad this autumn but the timing wasn't right, with Launchbury focusing on his family and finding a club. "[Jones] has been very supportive, good as gold. I am still ambitious, I still want to prove myself at the highest stage. This [move to Japan] is about us, my family, and doing something different. I think I have earned it to refresh, recharge, hopefully come back in July and prove how good I am."

Joe Launchbury of England runs with the ball during an England Training Session at Clifton College - Joe Launchbury exclusive interview: 'The RFU knew of Wasps' demise for five years.' - Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Joe Launchbury of England runs with the ball during an England Training Session at Clifton College - Joe Launchbury exclusive interview: 'The RFU knew of Wasps' demise for five years.' - Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Whatever happens with Wasps it feels unlikely, given his age and how long it may take the club to return to the top, that Launchbury will ever play for Wasps again. If he has a regret, it is that he was never able to win the Premiership with the club, having reached two finals. The squad are now scattered across the world, and Launchbury and his growing family will attempt to move on. But the whole mess feels like a tragedy.

"I do hope the club comes back to life in some form, and I know some good people are working hard to try and make that happen. I think it might take a little while. To lose a club, a brand, an identity, a family in a puff of smoke to never be seen again, I really hope that’s not the case."