It started in autumn 2003, on a midweek evening when Wasps A were playing Oxford University under the floodlights at Iffley Road - an easy trip from my West London home. I was standing in the clubhouse when the redoubtable A team manager, Geoff Strange, came in. He knew that I was in the media and asked whether I could write a match report for him. I was happy to oblige, as long as somebody could provide me with a writing implement and some paper. I then took on the duty of covering all the A team games and, five years later, was asked to report on the first team. Now, after more than 500 games at over 60 grounds around Europe, I’m calling it a day.
Those early days covering the A team were hugely enjoyable. A couple of lads named Rees and Haskell were playing in that Iffley Road encounter. Before long, my jaw was dropping as I witnessed the precocious wizardry of a 16-year-old called Cipriani. His mate Dom Waldouck was pretty useful, too! A couple of years later, I saw a pale, skinny kid called Simpson making his A team debut on the wing, in a game at Henley. I can’t remember who the opposition were, but he was almost destroyed in a heavy tackle.
Warren Gatland realised that a strong A team helped strengthen the 1st team, so senior players regularly appeared for the A’s as they came back from injury or occasionally paid for a poor performance. On one memorable evening at Kingsholm, Craig Dowd (back from injury!) could be seen packing down against Phil Vickery. Those were heady days, as Wasps reached four A League finals, winning two - one of them an unforgettable second leg win in front of a large and wonderfully disgruntled crowd at Welford Road.
It's generally believed that Lawrence Dallaglio’s final Wasps appearance was in the 2008 Premiership final triumph over Leicester, but a privileged few of us know better. Four months later, he was preparing to play in the Help for Heroes Game at Twickenham and decided to get some match practice by turning out in an A League clash with Harlequins, at Henley’s Dry Leas. Quins included one Will Greenwood, who was also coming out of retirement to prepare for the big day. Quins won, but Greenwood picked up a nasty gash in the leg for his trouble! That may also have been the game in which Serge Betsen made his first appearance for Wasps.
Unfortunately, the most famous of all games involving Wasps A was played behind closed doors at Henley, as they took on (and beat) the first team, ahead of the 2007 Heineken Cup Final. Don’t you wish you’d been there?
I would be lying if I said I’d enjoyed every minute of seventeen years of match reporting. There have been some dark and painful days, never more so than in 2011/12, when we only avoided relegation on the final day of the season. The capacity crowd which packed Adams Park that afternoon produced probably the most passionate Wasps support any of us could remember.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the most emotional day came in December 2014, when we took on London Irish in our first game as the new owners of the Ricoh Arena. After leaving Sudbury, we’d spent six seasons at Loftus Road, before leaving the capital for just over twelve years at Adams Park, during which time we’d collected trophies for fun. Our arrival in Coventry meant that, finally, we had a home of our own. I know that I was not the only person moved to tears on that great day.
Setting any club bias aside, I can unequivocally say that the press facilities at the Ricoh are superb. Ashton Gate is the only other Premiership ground which comes anywhere near it, although Kingsholm’s press room deserves an honourable mention. It is spacious, modern and has an excellent view of the magnificent cathedral. There was one ground where Toulouse Lautrec would have complained about the leg room in the press box, while the bunker which passed for a press room may well have been a dungeon in a previous existence. One of the more venerable grounds makes up for its dingy press room by providing bacon rolls before the game and curry at halftime. However, to get to your curry, you have to force your way through the queue for the neighbouring gents’ toilet. One other former ground placed journalists in a condemned stand, with the action only visible through scaffolding.
A couple of Premiership grounds each boast a very loud supporter who is close enough to the press box for their shrill, sustained vocal contributions to seriously test your patience. At another ground, the press seats back on to a box habitually filled by people with zero knowledge of rugby, who are clearly only there for a very loud jolly. One ground still has facilities which, to say the least, leave pretty much everything to be desired. Their old press box should have been condemned long before professionalism and the closest they’ve ever come to a press room is a tent.
I'm very happy to acknowledge that who would’ve been last weekend’s opponent, Exeter, have an excellent stadium, which is getting better all the time, although it has to be said that Sandy Park is exposed to the coldest winds found at any Premiership ground outside Kingston Park, where I've even frozen in May. It also has to be said that the temperature inside Exeter's vast press room (hangar) is often even lower!
European trips were always exciting, but the warmth of the welcome for Her Majesty’s Press varied. With one or two honourable exceptions, French clubs provide little or no catering for hungry hacks. At one venue, I nearly caused a diplomatic incident by picking up one of an array of baguettes which lay invitingly on a platter in the press box. I was told, in full puffed cheek mode, that they were for the local reporters. Merci beaucoup, mes amis. Vive L’Entente Cordiale.
Italy never failed to please. Mogliano stands out. Ask anybody who was there. Roma was mixed. A plush, classy clubhouse, with glamorous staff and excellent food, but I was forced to report from the bottom of a temporary tower, crouched awkwardly beneath scaffolding. Viadana was a different challenge. For some reason, head of communications Ali Donnelly had not made the trip, so I was working on my own. We scored 90 points that day, including fourteen tries, so writing a report while also providing Twitter updates was an interesting experience.
Galway’s Sportsground was certainly welcoming, although far from warm. A disappointing result against Connacht was made worse by being seated next to a choleric local journo who spent all afternoon screaming frenzied advice at/to the officials. At one point, I was seriously concerned that his head might explode. At least our European travels never took us to Siberia, although Paris and Bayonne have both produced Arctic conditions. There were also monsoons in Limerick and Toulouse, as well as a pea-souper in Rovigo.
Irritants apart, the hardest regular challenge was finding new words to describe the latest wonder try from Christian Wade. When he suddenly decided to seek his fortune in American Football, he had scored ninety-eight tries for Wasps and I had already prepared the article which would salute what seemed to be the inevitable century. It’s still stored in my laptop, but I can’t bring myself to read it.
A few regrets aside, I wouldn’t have missed the last seventeen years for the world. I shall miss the good humour and camaraderie of the press room. I have been lucky enough to share press boxes around Europe with Wasps colleagues Laura Brown, the aforementioned Ali Donnelly, Ben Lloyd, Mel Platt, Chris Kerr, Paul Smith, and Tom Vale. Many a laugh and never a cross word, apart from some choice expletives about the opposition or the officials!
Sincere thanks to everybody who has helped make those years so enjoyable - press and club colleagues, players, coaches, directors, fellow supporters. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to, in some small way, serve this great club.