2002/3 had been Wasps’ greatest season to date, but this was to prove even better. Warren Gatland’s side achieved another domestic and European double, but the Parker Pen Challenge Cup was replaced by the ultimate prize of the Heineken Cup, won in dramatic circumstances in a thrilling Twickenham final, against the aristocrats of Toulouse. Since it was also the season in which England lifted the World Cup, this was a glorious time to be a Wasps fan.
With six players away for the World Cup, the defence of the Zurich Premiership began poorly, and Wasps lost three of their first four games, but they turned that form round, and were back at the right end of the table, by the time Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy.
The returning heroes – Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Joe Worsley, Stuart Abbott and Simon Shaw - had little time to rest on their laurels, as the Heineken Cup began two weeks after England’s triumph in Sydney. All was going smoothly, with three wins out of three, before Celtic Warriors’ shock win at Adams Park put the pressure on. A tight win in the return game put things back on course, and quarterfinal qualification was secured with a magnificent win at Perpignan, in a brutal encounter which saw multiple citings for the home team, and a standing ovation from the passionate home supporters, as their conquerors left the field.
It was then back to the Premiership, where the winning run was continued, and hopes of a treble were raised, when Pertemps Bees, from National League One, were drawn to visit Adams Park in the quarterfinal of the Powergen Cup. The visitors pulled off one of the greatest upsets in cup history, in a game which was to prove the only big disappointment of the season.
The win in Perpignan had set up a home quarterfinal against Gloucester, and Wasps turned on the style to crush the West Country men 34-3. And so to Lansdowne Road, Dublin, for an unforgettable semi-final against Munster, in which Dallaglio’s men came from ten points behind to score two injury time tries and reach their first Heineken Cup final, with a 37-32 victory. At the time, many seasoned observers rated this as the greatest game in the competition’s history, and nothing has changed that view.
After the highs of Dublin, the final two Premiership games of the season were something of an anti-climax, with defeats away to Gloucester, and at home to Leicester, but second place, and a home playoff had already been secured. Northampton were comprehensively crushed, to take Wasps through to their second successive final, against table-toppers Bath, who’d ended the regular season six points clear of the rest.
The week before that Twickenham meeting, Wasps had the small matter of a Heineken Cup Final, against Toulouse. Despite some breathtaking rugby from the French side, Wasps led for most of the game, before a late penalty levelled the score at 20-all. With extra time looming large, Rob Howley sent a kick-ahead down the left touchline. Toulouse fullback Clement Poitrenaud dithered as the ball rolled over the tryline, and the Welsh scrum-half dived to snatch it from under his nose and claim one of the most sensational tries Twickenham had ever seen.
A week later, the Premiership final against Bath was a dour affair. With hooker Trevor Leota, the match-winning hero in Dublin, having a nightmare with his lineout throwing, Wasps spent much of the game defending, and it was only grit and determination that saw them to a 10-6 win, with Stuart Abbott scoring the game’s only try, set up by a crunching tackle from flanker Paul Volley, in his last game for Wasps before moving to French club Castres. The game ended with Bath camped on the Wasps line, and the final whistle was greeted with as much relief as elation by Dallaglio’s exhausted team.
Sadly, the win against Bath was also Rob Howley’s last game for Wasps. He’d suffered a serious wrist injury in the battle in Perpignan, and had only made it through to the end of the season thanks to pain-killing injections and minimal contact training. By then, he knew that his career was over, but his two seasons with Wasps had won the supporters’ hearts, and his unforgettable effort in the Heineken Cup had guaranteed him immortality.
This was the season which marked the end of the Warren Gatland era, and it ended on a high, with a comprehensive Twickenham victory over Leicester, to make it three successive Zurich Premiership titles for his team. Halfway through the season, Gatland announced that he was returning to his native New Zealand, where he was to take up a coaching job with Waikato Chiefs. In his place, the club appointed arguably British rugby’s greatest ever coach, Ian McGeechan. Gatland’s were huge boots to fill, but the Scot’s long record of success made him the ideal man for the job.
The Guinness Premiership – Guinness had succeeded Zurich as the competition’s sponsors – began with two defeats, but the team soon recovered to find themselves up in the playoff places, and were in a good position by the time the Heineken Cup defence started.
The phrase ‘Group of Death’ is somewhat over-used, but there seemed no better way to describe Wasps’ qualifying pool for this season. They were drawn with Leicester – who’d scraped in because Wasps’ triumph the previous season had won a seventh place for English clubs – French heavyweights Biarritz, and, for a second successive year, Italian side Calvisano.
A comfortable home win over Biarritz, followed by an easy victory in Italy, began the campaign well, but the back-to-back clashes against Leicester effectively put an end to the champions’ involvement. Two epic encounters, rated among the games of the season, saw Leicester win 37-31 at Adams Park and 35-27 at Welford Road. When Biarritz pulled off a surprise away win against the Tigers, the predictable home win over Calvisano revived faint hopes of a place in the last 8. Going in to the final game, in Biarritz, Wasps appeared to need a bonus point win to have any chance of going through. With tries imperative, they turned down a number of kickable penalties, but ended up 18-15 losers. Gallingly, it transpired that results elsewhere meant that any form of win would have secured a quarterfinal place.
In the middle of the European campaign, Wasps suffered another embarrassment in the Powergen Cup. They won a thrilling game at National One side Bristol, 43-33 – a game which saw the brief debut of 17-year-old starlet Danny Cipriani – but it then emerged that one of their replacements, hooker Jonny Barrett, was not registered, and they were thrown out of the tournament. After the previous season’s home defeat against Pertemps Bees, it was clear that Wasps and National League One sides did not mix well with the domestic cup competition
With only the Premiership to concentrate on, Wasps regrouped from their cup disappointments, and they entered the final week of the season, knowing that a win at Welford Road would secure top place at the end of the regular season. That’s not how things turned out, as Leicester crushed them 45-10, to make it three wins and a draw from the four clashes between the two clubs. The final table saw Wasps again taking second place, five points behind the Tigers.
A comprehensive play-off win against third-placed Sale took Wasps through to Twickenham for their third successive final, and they again showed that they know how to win the games that matter, as they crushed the east Midlanders 39-14 to send Martin Johnson and Neil Back into retirement on a losing note. Wasps said farewell to long-serving prop Will Green, who left to join Leinster, and his fellow front-row man Craig Dowd. The All Black legend was staying with the club, as the new forwards coach.
Ian McGeechan’s first season as Wasps director of rugby may not have reached the heights of the previous two years, but the club’s victory in the new Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup final ensured that they took home a trophy, for the fourth successive year.
Lawrence Dallaglio’s injury, in the opening game of the Lions tour of New Zealand, meant that the side were without their talismanic captain for the first few games of the season. When he returned, in October’s Powergen Cup tie against Cardiff, the side was well placed in the Guinness Premiership. They stayed in contention throughout the season, but a stunning defeat 56-37 against London Irish, in their final home game, meant they had to travel to Sale, for a play-off semi-final. A 22-12 win for the home side, in Stuart Abbott’s last game before joining Harlequins, meant that, for the first time, Wasps would not be contesting the Premiership final, at Twickenham.
There was disappointment in Europe. This season’s pool saw Wasps drawn with Toulouse - whom they’d beaten so memorably in the 2004 Final, thanks to the Hand of Howley – Llanelli Scarlets and Edinburgh Gunners. The campaign began with a trip to Murrayfield, where – in soggy conditions – a last-minute try sealed a 32-31 win for the home side. The following week saw a 15-15 home draw against Toulouse, so the campaign was already almost over. Things got worse in December, with a 21-13 away defeat against Llanelli, where the sunny conditions of the first half were replaced by second-half fog. Wasps extracted some revenge the following week, with a 48-14 win in the return game, to keep alive their faint hopes of reaching the knockout stages. Those hopes were dashed, when they went down 19-13 to the French giants. The pool games ended with a symbolic thrashing of Edinburgh in a dead rubber at Adams Park.
The new Anglo-Welsh tournament was to prove the season’s salvation. Its format meant that some sides had two home pool games, while others only had one. After a narrow victory away to London Irish, Wasps made the most of playing at home twice, to beat Cardiff and Bristol, and make it through to the semi-finals, both played on the same day at the Millennium Stadium. Their opponents were Leicester Tigers, whom they’d crushed in the previous season’s Premiership Final. This was a much closer affair, settled by Ayoola Erinle’s breakaway try, ending 22-17 in favour of Wasps.
The final gave Wasps another crack at Llanelli, who’d beaten Bath in the other semi-final, and Dallaglio’s men came out on top, at a rain-soaked Twickenham, with a comfortable 26-10 win, to secure their sixth trophy in four seasons.
The 2006/7 season was both disappointing and glorious. The disappointment was the fact that, for the first time since they were introduced, the play-offs did not feature Wasps. However, this was more than made up for by the fact that Lawrence Dallaglio led his side to a magnificent victory against Leicester, to lift the Heineken Cup for a second time, in front of a world record club attendance, at Twickenham.
Uncharacteristically for Wasps, the Premiership season began well, with three consecutive wins, but indifferent form in November and December left them some way behind the leaders.
A post-Christmas revival, including a memorable victory at Harlequins, with a side weakened by international calls, meant that they went into the final game, at Leicester, still in sight off a play-off place. Sadly, the Welford Road fortress held firm, and a 40-26 defeat meant the side had three weeks to prepare for another clash with Tigers, in the Heineken Cup Final. During that time, a behind closed doors warm-up at Henley saw the second team, who had just won the Guinness A League title, beat the first team!
The draw for that season’s top European competition had placed Wasps in the same pool as Perpignan, Castres and Italian champions Treviso. The campaign started inauspiciously, with defeat, and a limp display, away to Perpignan, which had been the scene of a stunning victory, on the way to glory in 2003/4. A late penalty from Alex King secured a bonus point, which was possibly more than Wasps deserved on the day. This was followed by a narrow win against Castres. The back-to-back games with Treviso produced 126 points, with the Italians replying with a solitary try. By now, young stars like Tom Rees, James Haskell, Danny Cipriani and Dominic Waldouck were beginning to establish themselves, and Rees and Haskell were to make their England debuts in the Six Nations. After coming off the bench three times, Rees’s first start – against France, at Twickenham – saw him named Man of the Match. Haskell’s debut came at the Millennium Stadium, where his late call-up meant that he joined Rees and Joe Worsley, in an all-Wasps back row.
The return game, against Perpignan, ended in a hard-fought 22-14 win, which meant that the final match, in Castres, was a winner takes all affair. It was a nail-biting afternoon, with Wasps taking an early 9-0 advantage, through Alex King’s boot. Castres came back to 9-6, before Tom Voyce’s second-half try put Wasps ten points ahead. A late converted try for the home side sparked a furious assault, and the last few minutes were played out near the Wasps line. The defence held out, and the 16-13 win set up a home quarterfinal against Leinster. One seasoned journalist described this as one of the greatest defensive displays he had ever seen. It’s certainly hard to imagine that many sides could have withstood the intense pressure thrown at them by a determined Castres side.
When Leinster came to Adams Park, in April, many pundits were confidently predicting that even the Wasps defence would not be able to handle the attacking skills of the Irish side, even without their injured captain, Brian O’Driscoll. How wrong can you be? After a tight first half, Wasps ran in three second-half tries and kept Leinster out, to record an overwhelming 35-13 win. We did not know it at the time, but this was to be the last home appearance for long-serving fly-half Alex King. He had put his body on the line in the first half, putting in some courageous tackles, and taking a nasty blow to the head for his troubles. His display epitomised the Wasps spirit, and his fifteen points from the boot were the icing on the cake.
Our semi-final opponents were to be the winners of the game between Biarritz – riding high in France – and Northampton Saints – fighting what turned out to be a losing battle against relegation from the Guinness Premiership. This appeared to be such a foregone conclusion that some supporters went ahead and booked their trips to the Basque Country, before the game had even been played.
A sensational 7-6 victory for the Saints meant Coventry replaced San Sebastian in the travel plans, with the game being held at Coventry City’s Ricoh Stadium. After some early scares, with Northampton running up a 13-0 lead within 16 minutes, Wasps settled down, and eased their way to a comfortable 30-13 win, with Paul Sackey running in two tries.
And so, the stage was set for another showdown between the big two of English rugby. A world record club crowd of 81,076 saw Wasps continue their cup domination of the Tigers. The Wasps lineout had long been seen as the Achilles heel, but, this time, it was to prove the trump card. Assistant coach Leon Holden had spotted that Leicester’s defence, at the front of the lineout, was suspect - and so it proved. Two smart moves, involving short throws, led to tries for Eoian Reddan and Raphael Ibanez, and Wasps led 13-6 at half-time.
The second half saw another display of Wasps grit and determination. The desperate Tigers never looked like scoring a try, and could only add a penalty. With Alex King adding twelve more points from the boot, including his almost inevitable Twickenham drop goal, the game ended in a comfortable 25-9 win for his side. The 16-point winning margin was the second biggest in the history of the competition, beaten only by Brive’s 28-9 trouncing of Leicester, in 1996/7 – the first season in which English sides had entered the competition.
What was particularly pleasing about the win was the fact that, just as in 2003/4, thirteen of the starting fifteen were English, or England-qualified. This was a clear message to those clubs who believe in using the cheque-book, to recruit a Foreign Legion, that investing in home-grown talent can produce the results.
A few weeks after that triumphant finale, Alex King announced that he was joining French side ASM Clermont-Auvergne. In his eleven seasons with the club, he’d played a key role in the winning of ten major trophies, and Wasps fans will never forget the enormous contribution made by this modest, gracious and highly gifted and influential player.
Saturday, May the 31st marked the end of an era. It was a bitter-sweet day, high on emotion. The sadness came from the fact that this was Lawrence Dallaglio’s final game for the club he’d served with such distinction, for nearly two decades – but the overwhelming emotion was joy, as the great man bowed out in the style to which Wasps fans had become accustomed. He lifted the Guinness Premiership trophy, to mark the final triumph of an extraordinary season. The story of how Wasps clinched their fourth Premiership title is the stuff of dreams.
This was a World Cup season, with the competition, in France, being held in September and October. Wasps lost ten players in all, including seven to England – Josh Lewsey, Paul Sackey, Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley, Tom Rees, Lawrence Dallaglio, and the captain, Phil Vickery. The club also provided French captain, Raphael Ibanez, as well as Ireland’s scrum-half Eoin Reddan and the Samoan forward Dan Leo.
Before the season began, head coach Shaun Edwards had gloomily predicted that Wasps would probably be at the bottom of the table, by the time the World Cup was over. Sadly, he was right. After England exceeded all expectations to finish runners-up, six Premiership games had been played, and Wasps were languishing at the foot of the table, with just one win. There were many who feared that Heineken Cup qualification would be out of reach, and thoughts of the play-offs were dismissed as fantasy. Anybody suggesting, at that stage, that the club would become champions was in danger of being led away by little men in white coats. How wrong we all were.
The first signs of recovery came in the EDF Anglo-Welsh Trophy, with a sensational victory over Gloucester, at Adams Park. With 19 minutes left, the Cherry and Whites led 26-8, but a stirring fightback, with two tries from substitute James Haskell, and a commanding performance from flyhalf Danny Cipriani, who’d begun the game at fullback, set up a nail-biting climax. With just three minutes left, a try from Tom Voyce clinched an implausible win.
From that point on, Wasps were only to lose two more Premiership matches – ironically, both to Gloucester. Two games stand out in that magnificent run of thirteen wins in sixteen games. The 42-32 win at Bath, in February, was hailed as one of the games of the season, and the 24-19 victory at Leicester was not far behind. That win was the first Wasps had ever achieved at Welford Road, and it came without the services of Lawrence Dallaglio, who was serving the only suspension of his career, for punching Julian White, in the EDF semi-final, the previous week.
Defeat against Leicester, at the Millennium Stadium, had been hugely disappointing. Tigers thoroughly deserved their 34-24 triumph, and it seemed that they had finally shaken off the Wasps cup hoodoo, which had seen us claim two final wins – the 2005 Zurich Premiership and the 2007 Heineken Cup - and one semi-final, in the 2006 Powergen Cup. A week later, Wasps took instant revenge, with a stunning performance. Two early tries from Fraser Waters set them on their way, and a dazzling effort from substitute Danny Cipriani, took them to a 24-19 win. Mention should also be made of the victories over Bristol, Harlequins and London Irish. All three victories were achieved by a side which was seriously depleted by Six Nations calls.
After the defeat at home to Gloucester, two away wins, coupled with Bath’s 8-6 defeat at Kingsholm, meant Wasps had achieved the unthinkable, and sneaked in to second place. A 21-10 victory against Bath, in the play-off semi-final, came at a cost, with serious injuries to Danny Cipriani and Tom Voyce. As Dave Walder, who’d been in the form of his life, had already seen his season end, with an ankle fracture dislocation, Riki Flutey, who was to be named PRA Players’ Player of the season, after a superb debut season, with Wasps, filled the flyhalf role for the final.
The other final place was claimed by Leicester, who’d been minutes away from missing the playoffs altogether, before a late try, in the final league game, sealed fourth place, and a trip to Gloucester. A last-gasp drop goal from Andy Goode made it 26-25 to the visitors, stunning the Shed, and booking Leicester their third Twickenham meeting with Wasps in four seasons.
A world record crowd of 81,600 packed into Twickenham for the latest clash of the English giants – many drawn by the added attraction of seeing Dallaglio’s farewell. The game was almost over by halftime, with a dominant Wasps performance taking them to 23-6 lead at the interval. Leicester recovered in the second half, to cause a few palpitations amongst Wasp supporters – but, when the big man left the field, with a few minutes left, his side were 26-16 ahead. Almost to a man, the Twickenham crowd rose to acclaim the final exit of a legend, whose emotions were there for all to see. When the final whistle went, the tears disappeared, and Wasps began their familiar Twickenham routine.
There was so much else for Wasps fans to enjoy. For the second year running, the A team became Guinness A League champions. Danny Cipriani became our latest England international, and picked up awards galore. Dave Walder was the deserving recipient of the EDF Energy Community Player of the Season, for his excellent work training young deaf players. He’s learnt sign language to communicate, but the kids from the Home Counties have problems with some of his Geordie signs. Yes, really! There are regional variations.
On top of that came the satisfaction of seeing a massive Wasps impact on the Six Nations. Sadly, for English fans, it was Wales who benefited! They achieved the Grand Slam, with Warren Gatland as head coach, and Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley both serving under him. Then came the news that Ian McGeechan was to coach next summer’s Lions tour of South Africa - his fifth tour as a Lions coach. Then, in the close season, the new England supremo, Martin Johnson announced his first squads, with nine Wasps players in the elite group, and five more named among the Saxons – a bigger contribution than any other club, and proper recognition of the contribution the club has made to English rugby. Once again, the starting fifteen for the final had included 12 English or English-qualified players, and one who was about to qualify – Riki Flutey, who richly deserved his place in Johnson’s elite squad. So the Wasps influence on the game remains enormous.
The only other disappointment of the season came in the Heineken Cup. As in 2004, the reward for winning the trophy had been to be placed in another tough pool – this time, it was probably the ultimate pool of death, with the previous season’s semi-finalists Llanelli Scarlets, ASM Clermont-Auvergne - who went on to finish top of the French championship, before losing the final to Toulouse – and Munster, who were to become European champions for the second time, by beating Toulouse in the Cardiff final.
A 24-23 victory in the opening game – against Munster, at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, was followed by an impressive 33-17 win in Llanelli. Defeat away to Clermont, by 37 points to 27, was clouded in controversy, with the TMO awarding the French team a try which never was. He admitted later that he’d got it wrong, but that the French TV channel screening the game had not shown him vital footage!
The return game, the following week, was a classic. In the first half, Cipriani played some inspired rugby, to lead his side to a big halftime lead, before a storming fightback brought Clermont, Alex King and all, back to 25-24 by the end. After a 40-7 win over Llanelli, at Adams Park, Wasps set off for Limerick, knowing a win over Munster would guarantee a quarterfinal place, while a bonus point loss could also see them through. Sadly, neither was to be. In monsoon conditions, with Thomond Park still more of a building site than a rugby ground, the champions were splashed out of the competition by the Red Army, whose 19-3 win was every bit as convincing as the scoreline suggested.
But this was not a season to be remembered for the disappointments. The abiding memory will always be of Lawrence Dallaglio lifting his final trophy, on the final day of May. Alongside him was Fraser Waters, who had also played his final game for the club, after eleven magnificent seasons. He was joining the Italian club, Treviso, and his contribution to the successes of recent years had also been massive. The departures of those two men will leave a huge void, but their years of loyal service will never be forgotten. Their final bows brought down the curtain on an extraordinary season, in which Wasps had overturned the odds, and come back from the dead, to achieve probably the greatest of their many triumphs.
All good things come to an end, and this was the season when the six-year run of Wasps silverware finally ended. To add to that disappointment, the two-times European champions failed to qualify for the 2009/2010 Heineken Cup.
To win the 2007/8 Guinness Premiership, Wasps had pulled off something of a miracle, with a storming run-in making up for a poor start to the season. The start to this season was even poorer, and left just too much of a mountain to climb, after Christmas. Despite that, there were positives to draw from the campaign.
For the first time ever, we completed a league double over Leicester, who went on to become the Premiership champions. It was, in fact, at Welford Road that Wasps secured their first win of the season, after three consecutive defeats. Three more defeats followed, including a 32-10 crushing at the Stoop, before the reigning champions secured an away victory at Newcastle, at the end of November.
From that point, Wasps put together a string of ten consecutive home wins in all competitions. These included a 19-12 victory over the eventual Heineken Cup champions, Leinster, in front of a crowd of over 33,000, at Twickenham.
For much of the season, the main problem was a shortage of tries, and it wasn’t until the penultimate game of the campaign, at Bristol, that they finally secured their first Premiership try bonus. That was followed by another four-try victory over Gloucester, in front of a sellout crowd at Adams Park.
That win lifted Wasps to seventh in the table. The fact that English clubs had outperformed their French counterparts in the Heineken Cup meant that a seventh Premiership club would qualify for the following season’s tournament. Sadly, it was not to be Wasps, as Northampton, who’d finished one place below them in the Premiership, secured the final qualifying spot by winning the European Challenge Cup.
The other key factor had been the number of narrow defeats, many of them to late or last-minute scores, with Wasps picking up as many as seven losing bonus points.
The European campaign was another which ended in late agony, in Castres. After a comfortable 25-11 home win against the French side, Wasps came crashing down to earth, with a 41-11 thrashing, away to Leinster. A December double against Edinburgh meant that wins in the final two pool games could have earned a quarter-final place. Leinster were duly beaten at Twickenham, so it was all down to the final game, in Castres.
After trailing for much of the game, Wasps appeared to have snatched a vital victory, through a magnificent try from Dominic Waldouck, but the home side responded immediately, taking advantage of an injury to Paul Sackey to attack down his wing and score a converted try which broke Wasps hearts, to make the final score 21-15. As it turned out, a later result, between Bath and Toulouse, meant that even a Wasps win would have not have taken them into the last eight.
The final hopes of securing any silverware from the season ended in the Guinness Premiership A League final. A radically reduced competition had seen Wasps win their pool, to face Gloucester in the semi-final. A comfortable 55-27 victory at Henley set up a repeat of the previous year’s final, against Northampton, but they avenged that defeat with a comprehensive 63-10 win over two legs, including a runaway 37-0 victory in the second leg, at Franklin’s Gardens, ending Wasps’ dreams of making it three titles in a row.
In one area, this was an outstanding season for Wasps, with an amazing ten players representing England, and a further five turning out for England Saxons. To cap it all, four players – Phil Vickery, Simon Shaw, Joe Worsley and Riki Flutey – won selection for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa. The Lions management also had a strong Wasps feel, with head coach Ian McGeechan including Shaun Edwards, Warren Gatland and Rob Howley amongst his assistants.
After the season ended came the shock news that Geech was leaving Wasps, after four highly successful years. His successor was to be Tony Hanks, who’d worked under Gatland for three years, and had spent much of the season as part of the coaching team. Another departing coach was Leon Holden, who’d joined the club at the end of the 2004/5 season. He soon made his mark, and his crowning glory came in the 2007 Heineken Cup Final, when he masterminded the lineout moves which led to the two Wasps tries, in the epic win over Leicester.
There were a number of significant departures, on the field. Raphael Ibanez, who’d taken over the captaincy, following Lawrence Dallaglio’s retirement, was forced to retire in mid-season, on medical advice, after suffering a series of concussion. Then came the news that World Cup winner Josh Lewsey was to retire at the end of the season, after a long and glorious career with Wasps.
Also on their way, to France, were James Haskell, Riki Flutey and Tom Palmer, while Tom Voyce announced that he was moving to Gloucester, where his great-uncle, also Tom Voyce, had been a legend in the 1920s. All had contributed enormously to the successes of recent seasons.
This was a season which promised much, but ended disappointingly.
Tony Hanks’s tenure as DOR began encouragingly, with three straight wins in the Premiership – against Harlequins, in the London Double Header, away to Bath, and at home to Worcester. This was Wasps’ best start for three years, with new signing Tom Varndell running in five tries. After defeat at London Irish, they then chalked up four more consecutive victories, including two in the Challenge Cup, and a bonus point win at Kingsholm, which was to be the last home defeat for Gloucester for nearly two years.
That win was followed by a shock home defeat to bottom side Leeds – their first ever win over Wasps. Two wins in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, against London Irish and Gloucester, were followed by a 22-6 defeat away to Saracens, before another run of four straight wins. Those victories included a narrow home Premiership win against Leicester Tigers, back-to-back Challenge Cup wins against Bayonne, and a second Twickenham triumph against Harlequins, in front of a Christmas holiday crowd of 77,000, with victory being sealed by a late try from John Hart.
It was another surprise home defeat – this time against struggling Newcastle - which ended that excellent sequence of results. It was followed by a heavy loss at Welford Road, before the final two pool games in the Challenge Cup. Top place, and a home quarterfinal, was sealed with a big home win over Roma, and it was only a last-minute penalty, away to Racing-Metro, which denied Wasps a 100% pool record.
European pool rugby made way for the last two Anglo-Welsh pool matches, and a narrow home defeat against Scarlets proved costly, as an away win at Newcastle was not enough to secure a semifinal place.
Back in the Premiership, home wins over Sale and Saracens kept Wasps in playoff contention, but the trip to Headingley saw Leeds complete a historic double, with a convincing 26-10 scoreline.
The next four Premiership games produced two wins and two defeats. There was a home win against Gloucester, to complete a double over the Cherry and Whites, and away defeats at Sale and Northampton, the latter being notable for a magnificent performance by skipper Tom Rees, in his first game for nearly a year, following a lengthy injury layoff. A bonus point home win, over playoff rivals London Irish, sent Wasps into their Challenge Cup quarterfinal, at home to Gloucester, in excellent spirits.
That match brought back memories of the 2004 clash, at the same stage of the Heineken Cup, and the 42-26 victory was every bit as comprehensive as the 2004 win. Tom Varndell scored three of the five tries, his first hat-trick for Wasps, who made it four wins out of four over Gloucester, for the season.
A first ever away win at Worcester set Wasps up for what promised to be a highlight of the season – the first St. George’s Day game, in aid of Help for Heroes, at Twickenham. A crowd of just over 60,000 was there, and Wasps went into the game, knowing that a win would secure a playoff place. Sadly, that was not to be, as Bath avenged their early home season defeat with a comprehensive 35-19 victory, to put them within sight of a playoff place.
Further disappointment was to follow a week later, when Wasps entertained Cardiff Blues, in the semi-final of the Amlin Challenge Cup. It was a late kick-off, by which time the fine weather of the afternoon had made way for monsoon-like conditions, and the visitors were able to snatch an 18-15 win, which took them into the final, where they beat hot favourites Toulon.
Wasps travelled to Newcastle on the final day of the season, knowing that they had to win, with other results going their way, to qualify for the playoffs. They duly produced the necessary victory, but Bath’s big win over Leeds meant they took fourth place, four points ahead of Wasps, in fifth position.
It was a hugely frustrating end to the season, made even more frustrating by the knowledge that it was home defeats against struggling sides which had proved costly. All the top four sides had been beaten - Leicester, Northampton and Saracens, at Adams Park,and Bath, at The Rec - but those surprise home losses against Leeds and Newcastle had been the difference between reaching the playoffs and missing out.
After coming so close, Wasps had to console themselves with the knowledge that they had, at least, qualified for the Heineken Cup, after their first Challenge Cup campaign in seven years.
The end of the season saw the departure of two star performers. Paul Sackey headed off to France, to join Toulon, while Danny Cipriani was heading even further afield. He had signed a two-year contract with the new Super 15 franchise, the Melbourne Rebels. Both players had contributed greatly to the successes of the last few seasons.
With Riki Flutey making a welcome return to Black and Gold colours , after an injury-hit year in Brive, an opening day draw against Harlequins, in the London Double Header, was followed by a hugely disappointing defeat at Newcastle. Wasps had built up a 17-3 lead in the first 30 minutes, but then faded badly, conceding 26 unanswered points and losing 29-17.
Things appeared to be going from bad to worse the following weekend, when Leicester scored four tries before halftime, to lead 30-18 at the break. But the second half produced one of the most remarkable comebacks ever seen at Adams Park. Guided by the expert boot of Dave Walder, Wasps clawed their way back into the game, to draw level at 30-all, with seven minutes to go.
Three minutes later, Leicester skipper Geordan Murphy completely misjudged a bouncing ball, to let Richard Haughton, a new signing from Saracens, in for a sensational matchwinning try, which Walder duly converted, to make the final score 37-30 – a third successive home win over our old rivals.
Two weeks on the road produced two desperately close matches. At Kingsholm, it ended 22-20 in favour of the home side, after a late Dave Walder penalty came within a whisker of stealing a win. A week later, it was Walder who ended a run of five successive defeats at Edgeley Park, when his last-minute drop goal snatched a dramatic 25-24 win over Sale.
The following week marked the opening games in the Heineken Cup, and Wasps had the toughest possible task, away to champions Toulouse. In torrential rain, they rose to the challenge magnificently. David Lemi scored the only try of the game, fifteen minutes from time, to put Wasps ahead, but David Skrela’s sixth penalty, seven minutes later, reclaimed the lead. A minute from time, Dave Walder had a long-range penalty, to claim a historic victory, but it was just inches wide, and the home side ended 18-16 winners.
Back at Adams Park, Wasps made up for their disappointment with a bonus point win over Glasgow Warriors, to keep alive their quarterfinal hopes.
After the encouraging performances in Europe, Wasps were brought back to earth with a resounding thud when they were crushed 37-10 by Northampton, their worst home defeat since May 2004.
Four days later came the devastating news that World Cup winner and former England captain, Phil Vickery, had been forced to retire from the game. He’d suffered a knock to the neck in the defeat at Kingsholm, and had been warned that he would risk serious injury, if he played again.
After such a grim week, Wasps rallied well, to secure a hard-fought win at Leeds, with Joe Simpson scoring one of the tries of the season – a superb solo effort from a scrum, just inside his own half.
The Anglo-Welsh Cup began badly, with an inexperienced side going down to a heavy defeat at Exeter, who were the Premiership new boys. The second pool game ended in a narrow win over Bath, at Adams Park.
That win sparked a run of seven victories – the best sequence of results since autumn 2004, when Warren Gatland’s side reeled off an astounding nine consecutive wins.
Back in the Premiership, there was a home win over London Irish, and then a narrow away win at Bath It was the first time Wasps had won back-to-back Premiership games all season, but –sadly – it was to be the last appearance of the season for the luckless Tom Rees. He came off the bench, late in the game, and suffered an injury to the same shoulder which had required surgery the previous year, and had kept him out for the best part of twelve months – yet another stroke of bad luck for a player who had already had more than his share of ill fortune, and another huge blow for the club.
There was a home win over Exeter, in the Premiership, then back-to-back Heineken Cup wins over Newport Gwent Dragons, with the wintry weather causing the away game to be switched from Rodney Parade to the Cardiff City Stadium, and then making Adams Park almost inaccessible, for the return game.
The 37-10 home win over the Welsh side was to be the final win in that run of seven. On Boxing Day, with Wasps in the top four, and eyeing the playoffs, there was a frustrating 13-6 defeat to Saracens, at Wembley. A week later, Newcastle were comfortably seen off at Adams Park, but the rest of the season only produced two wins in 10 Premiership games.
A losing bonus point was earned in an exciting game at The Stoop, before the final set of Heineken Cup pool matches.
Wasps travelled to Glasgow, knowing that a win would set up a pool decider against Toulouse, but a desperately disappointing performance ended with a 20-10 defeat, to ensure that the French side were pool winners, with the final game still to play. Back at Adams Park, with the scores locked at 16-16, David Lemi scored a last-minute try to set up an Amlin Challenge Cup quarterfinal at Harlequins.
The following week, the London rivals met in the unlikely surroundings of the Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, following the ground-breaking decision to take their Anglo-Welsh Cup pool game out to the Middle East. It ended in huge disappointment, as Quins were runaway winners. The final LV=Cup game, in the less glamorous setting of Bridgend’s Brewery Field, also ended in defeat, against the Ospreys.
Things went no better in the Premiership, with an agonising 10-9 defeat, at home to Gloucester. It was to be the last game in charge for Tony Hanks, as the club was to announce his departure, later that week. After a battling display in a 21-12 defeat at Welford Road, news came that former assistant coach Leon Holden was to return to the club as a caretaker Director of Rugby. That week ended with an infuriating home loss against Saracens, which saw two Wasps players shown yellow cards which the authorities later acknowledged should never have been produced.
The depressing run of five defeats ended with a welcome home win over Sale, but Wasps were already losing touch with the playoff contenders, and looking likely to miss out on Heineken Cup qualification. Next came a heavy away defeat, 39-3 at Northampton, where Josh Lewsey came out of retirement, to help his old club. Then, a particularly galling 25-12 defeat at London Irish, after a superb start, which had produced two tries, inside fifteen minutes. Less than ten minutes before halftime, there was another major injury blow, when the in-form Dom Waldouck pulled up in agony, with no other player near him. It turned out to be a ruptured Achilles tendon, which kept him out for six months.
The following weekend was quarterfinal time, in Europe, and the fourth Wasps-Harlequins clash of the season, this time at The Stoop. A disastrous start saw Wasps concede two tries inside the first five minutes. They rallied strongly, and played a full part in a pulsating encounter, before finally going down 32-22.
A seven-try, 51-18 thrashing of Leeds, at Adams Park, finally gave Wasps fans something to cheer about, ahead of the second St. George’s Day game at Twickenham, again against left Bath. It turned out to be an even bigger defeat than the previous year, with the final score 43-10 to the men from The Rec. Joe Simpson’s spectacular solo try, late in the game provided the only highlight.
It turned out to be the final appearance in Wasps colours for the popular Mark Van Gisbergen, who left the club at the end of the season, to join French Top 14 side Lyon. He had been with Wasps for nine years, and played a huge part in the glory years. A prolific goalkicker, he also scored tries in the 2004 Heineken Cup and the 2005 Guinness Premiership finals. His departure left Richard Birkett and Joe Worsley as the last survivors of the side which had won the Challenge Cup and Premiership finals, in 2003.
The final game of the season, away to Exeter, started promisingly, with a well-taken first Premiership try for England Under-20s winger Christian Wade. But Wasps were unable to make the most of some enterprising rugby, and the final scoreline of 21-8 to the home side marked a disappointing end to a difficult season, with Wasps finishing 9th in the Premiership table – their worst finish since 1997/98, when they had also finished 9th.
This was a season which provided precious few fond memories for Wasps supporters. What positives there were came from the performances of young players like Christian Wade, Elliot Daly, Joe Launchbury and Sam Jones, all of whom went on to play outstandingly well in the England Under-20s side which reached the Junior World Cup final, later that summer.
Shortly after that tournament was concluded, months of speculation ended, when the long-serving Cardiff Blues coach Dai Young was named as Wasps’ Director of Rugby. With many new signings already announced, his appointment marked the beginning of a new era for The Men in Black and Gold.