The 1990s had been a phenomenal period for Wasps and Rugby Union in general. The dawning of the professional era had seen Wasps assemble one of the most powerful playing squads in the country. The diversity of the team was demonstrated in 1993 when Wasps added the Middlesex Sevens title to their Honours list.
The modern day Wasps team is a formidable combination of talented youngsters and experienced internationals. Under the leadership of England and British Lion, Lawrence Dallaglio, the squad triumphed over the challenges of the new professional era. The 96/97 campaign was perhaps the highlight of Wasps long and distinguished history with a series of electrifying performances clinching the first professional League Championship.
The next season saw a Tetley's Bitter Cup Final appearance and in 1999 Wasps went one better to win the Cup for the first time in their history to prove once again that the Black and Golds fully deserved their place amongst the élite clubs in England.
This feat was repeated in 2000, when Wasps returned to Twickenham to retain the Tetley Bitter Cup, beating Northampton in front of their delighted fans. Mark Weedon lifted the trophy that day in the absence of Dallaglio while Andy Reid (Scotland), was another Wasps that became an international while playing for the club.
The 2001/2002 season was one of mixed fortunes, that's how one can describe it. Finishing runners-up in the Zurich Premiership the 2001/2002 season looked promising for the Black and Gold Army but unfortunately didn't live up to expectations.
With a slow start and a barrage of injuries, the season got a vital boost when former New Zealand Rugby International and Ireland National coach Warren Gatland replaced Nigel Melville as the Director of Rugby. After months of speculation Melville moved to Gloucester and Gatland took over the reigns. The rewards were instant and with his new playing style and the return of many players from injury including captain Lawrence Dallaglio, flyhalf Alex King and flanker Paul Volley, London Wasps climbed off the bottom position in the Zurich Premiership to end mid- table; this remarkable turnaround included six consecutive wins including a magnificent 34-24 win over eventual European Champions Leicester Tigers. Gatland finished the season in charge with his record as played eight, won six and lost two.
As far as players go, "Kinga" proved remarkable with the boot and slotted an astonishing 10 drop goals during the Zurich Premiership season and ended up second in the drop-goal table. The 2001/2002 season also saw the retirement of one of rugby's greatest players, Ian Jones. The New Zealand lock moved to London Wasps mid-season and his vast amount of experience and leadership proved an inspiration for many of the young players. Jones said, " I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Wasps and whatever happens I will always have a soft spot for the side and look back on my time here with fond memories". Jones eventually hung up his boots at the end of the season.
As far as the Heineken Cup goes, London Wasps failed to reach their true potential as a force in European Rugby. Finishing third in a group that included Treviso, Ulster and Stade Francais unfortunately excluded them from the play-offs.
In the Powergen Cup, the deadly boot of Jonny Wilkinson - who scored all his side's points, gave defending champions Newcastle Falcons a 24-22 fifth-round victory and sank any chance of London Wasps reaching the last eight. Wilkinson's injury-time drop goal secured victory for the Falcons and summed up London Wasps' season, full of missed chances and very unlucky.
The 2001/2002 season also saw the last game at Loftus Road for the next two years as the 2002/2003 season would see them playing at Adams Park in High Wycombe. The final game was against Northampton Saints, which was an emotional moment for many of the players, staff and officials.
Unfortunately, Wasps fate had already been sealed before Gatland took over and so the Black and Gold Army would spend the season contesting the Parker Pen Challenge Cup.
The 2002/2003 season could possibly be described as the greatest ever in Wasps history. At the start of the season, Wasps made the biggest signing in the Premiership as Welsh legend Rob Howley joined the club. Howley's impact was immediate and laid part of the platform for the greatest season of all time.
Unfortunately the side got off to a bad start and found themselves in sixth position in the league. November 2002 was the worst patch as the side failed to win any games during that month. However, a surprise away win at the Leeds Tykes saw the Black and Gold Army turn the season completely around and go on to win the Zurich Premiership and Parker Pen Challenge Cup Trophies.
Under the guidance of Gatland, the side went on to win 18 of the final 21 games. Some of the highlights of the season were:
Watching Lawrence Dallaglio lift the Zurich Premiership Trophy at Twickenham was the cherry on top of a very successful season. The final itself saw Wasps putting Gloucester to the sword. The try in the first minute from Josh Lewsey laid the platform for the 39-3 victory. Seeing Gloucester humbled in front of their fans in such a brutal way was something Wasps fans will never forget and might never see again.
Watching Lawrence Dallaglio lift the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, the first piece of silverware for Wasps since 2000, was something that brought a lump to everyone's throat. Winning that trophy was the catalyst that allowed the team to enter the arena of Twickenham in a positive frame of mind. Three tries in the first half and it was game over for Bath.
Moving to Causeway Park and the Buckinghamshire community coming in their droves to support Wasps was a success story in itself. I'm sure many people would agree that Adams Park is a better 'rugby' ground than Lotus Road and that the new home has a much friendlier family environment. Wasps' will spend another season in High Wycombe and a decision on what the next move might be will follow later in the season. The marketing and community teams ensured Wasps ticket sales increased dramatically this season.
The international success of our players. Lawrence Dallaglio found his old form again and led by example securing his regular place in Clive Woodward's team. Josh Lewsey scoring two tries at Twickenham during the Six Nations made everyone stand up and take notice of just what a deadly player he is. Kenny Logan shining in what was a struggling Scotland side allowed him to receive the Man of the Match award for Scotland's game against Italy and booked a place in his country's tour to South Africa. Joe Worsley and Simon Shaw once again stood tall amongst the England pack and can hold their heads high in helping England secure the Grand Slam. On the same day as England were winning in Dublin, Phil Greening captained the England Sevens Team to their second IRB Hong Kong Sevens title.
Let's not forget Trevor Leota's selection for Samoa. The big hooker toured South Africa in June and barring injury looks set for the World Cup. However the highlight of the season might still be coming as before the Twickenham final, Woodward summoned 11 Wasps players to international duties for the month of June. Those chosen to tour Australia and New Zealand in addition to the now usual selections of Lewsey, Shaw, Worsley and Dallaglio were Stuart Abbott, Alex King and Paul Volley. If that was not enough, Woodward chose Will Green, Phil Greening, Fraser Waters and Martyn Wood for England's North American tour. Sure Wood at the end of the season moved to Bath, but his selection was chosen on his Wasps' performance.