Wasps v Toulouse - Standout Games

Date: 27 Nov 2018


BY BARNEY BURNHAM

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Although Leonard Albert Kravitz (better known as Lenny, of that ilk) penned that particular offering five years before Wasps and Toulouse first faced each other, his words form a remarkably accurate summary of how their eight European encounters have gone.

The record to date is four wins for Wasps, two for Toulouse and two draws. Only in one game has there been a winning margin of more than seven points, and late drama and decisive scores have been the order of the day.

From those eight thrilling meetings, two stand out. One set the pattern for tense finales, the other was the single exception to the close scoreline rule and was in every way exceptional.

It was the first ever game between the two sides, in Wasps’ first ever European season. It was played at Loftus Road on Saturday 26 October 1996. In those early days of the tournament, there were five teams in each pool and sides only faced each other once. Wasps were given home advantage against Cardiff and Toulouse, with away games in Munster and Milan.

The opening fixture against Cardiff (captained by Dai Young), ended in a 26-24 defeat, thanks to a last-minute Jonathan Davies drop-goal. Six days later, there was a 49-22 thrashing at Thomond Park. Coach Rob Smith recalled an awful weekend in Limerick: “After every game, Lawrence (Dallaglio) would make some sort of speech and start a discussion in the changing room,” said Smith. “After the game in Limerick, it was the only time I ever told him to just sit down. He was struggling for words to explain what had happened out on the pitch. I just said: “Okay, this is what happened and this is where we need to go. Let’s go out and have a good night, and I’ll see you all in training when we get back.”

A couple of days before the Toulouse clash, Director of Rugby Nigel Melville was summoned to see Club Owner Chris Wright: “I expected to be sacked,” said Melville. “He just asked me if I thought we had any chance of beating the reigning champions and I said ‘Yes.’”

Those reigning champions arrived in London with two victories already under their belt and a quarter-final place in sight. For Wasps, there was only pride to play for. Nobody could have predicted what was about to happen.

After an early try from Andy Reed, Toulouse responded through a Thomas Castaignede penalty and a try from captain Emile Ntamack which put them ahead. Shane Roiser’s score put Wasps back in front and they led 23-10 at the break. The second-half saw Wasps run riot, adding seven more tries with five coming in the last 22 minutes. It ended 77-17 - a staggering, barely believable scoreline. L’INCROYABLE DÉROUTE (THE INCREDIBLE ROUT) was the dramatic headline in one French newspaper. Another simply read OH! TOULOUSE.

Stunned as they were, Toulouse had nothing but praise for their conquerors. The shellshocked Ntamack commented: “At times, I thought they were Toulouse.”  Fly half Christophe Deylaud ruefully observed: “We will never forget this day. Those guys played a game from the new era.” Flanker Jean-Luc Cester said: “At times you had the impression they were playing Sevens rugby - spread out all over the pitch, with backs and forwards together.” Coach Guy Novès declared that it had been the worst day of his rugby career. “The waves just kept coming,” he explained.

The Wasps reaction was a mixture of relief and delight. Smith recently said: “There were a lot of technical things and patterns that we’d introduced that are still being used today. They involved the whole team, from 1 to 15. Locks or hookers would turn up on the wing. It was still very satisfying for us to go out and put something like that together, something that we could build on for the rest of the season.”

Melville added: “It was the first time we’d tried out the pod system and it worked perfectly. It was a really important result for us, as it gave us huge confidence. We hardly lost another match that season and eventually won the title with a game to spare.”

Skipper Dallaglio shared Ntamack’s view, saying: “We did a Toulouse on Toulouse.” Years later, he was still describing it as “probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen from a club side”.

The second standout Wasps-Toulouse encounter took place seven-and-a-half years later, seven-and-half miles from the compact surroundings of Loftus Road. It was the 2004 Heineken Cup final, played at the Cathedral of Rugby which is Twickenham. It remains one of the most gripping finals the competition has ever seen, with a denouement that has never been matched.

Toulouse were once more the reigning champions, having lifted the cup for the second time after beating Perpignan at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road the previous year. Wasps were the reigning Premiership champions, having thrashed Gloucester Rugby in the 2003 final.

It was a match of stunning quality, with the galacticos of Toulouse producing some astounding rugby and Wasps putting in a defensive performance which beggared belief. Man-of-the-Match Joe Worsley is credited with a staggering 33 tackles, although some estimates put it even higher. Despite the constant flow of Toulouse attack, Wasps led 13-11 at the break, with a try from Stuart Abbott and a conversion and two penalties from Mark van Gisbergen. All the Toulouse points came from fly half Yann Delaigue, through two penalties and a try, just before half-time.

Three minutes into the second-half Van Gisbergen finished off a superb counter-attack with a try under the posts. After his conversion made it 20-11, Toulouse chipped away at the lead through the boot of Jean-Baptiste Élissalde. His third penalty, three minutes from time, levelled things at 20-all. Extra time loomed large when Wasps scrum half Rob Howley sent a kick towards the left corner. As the Welshman chased his kick, Toulouse full back Clément Poitrenaud waited behind the line. With hands between his knees, he gathered the ball and was in the act of touching down for a 22 when Howley arrived, dived forwards, snatched it from his grasp, and grounded it. Referee Alain Rolland consulted his TMO and the try was confirmed. Van Gisbergen converted from the touchline, Wasps gathered the restart and seconds later it was the full back who cleared to touch to end a memorable final. Wasps were crowned European champions for the first time.

The Wasps reaction was a mixture of delight and disbelief. Alex King, whose break had set up Van Gisbergen’s try, was in awe of the Toulouse performance. “I think Toulouse played some of the best rugby I’ve ever been involved with,” said King. “They were offloading in situations where you would never have thought it was possible. There were times in the first-half when we were chasing shadows.”

Prop Will Green echoed his teammate’s words. “It was like chasing shadows, like chasing ghosts,” he remarked. “We were completely outplayed. If we’d played them ten times, we’d probably only have beaten them once. That was our day. It was our season, it was our year, it was our era.”

Both men agreed that things might have turned out differently, had it not been for the hand of Howley. King added: “My legs were like jelly. It would have been a real test for us if it had gone to extra time.” Green concurred: “If that game had gone into extra time, I don’t think we’d have won.”

Lock Simon Shaw had also feared extra time. “I had absolutely nothing left in the tank,” he said. “I simply couldn’t imagine playing any longer.”

Afterwards, as the players paraded around the stadium displaying the trophy to their ecstatic supporters, Shaw found himself thinking: “How the hell did we win that game?”

Director of Rugby Warren Gatland was relieved, rather than triumphant. He said: “I didn’t think the better side won. We just kept working hard and showed some character. We were fortunate at the end. We were under a lot of pressure, but Rob Howley did something special.

“There were a lot of players at the Club who’d been there a long time and they might never have had another opportunity. We had others who were leaving, so it was important. Before the game, Lawrence spoke about how Wasps had been a huge part of his life and this was the most important game of his career, apart from the World Cup final. When you hear guys talking like that and realise what’s gone into this Club, you know you’re just part of a great history.”

For Chris Wright, who’d bought the Club after the game went professional, that day was the highlight of his 12 years at the helm. He explained: “If Rob hadn’t scored that try, I think we would probably have lost as it would have gone into extra time and they had a much stronger bench. He made that kick right in front us, as we were in the Royal Box. The ball just kept bouncing and Poitrenaud didn’t know whether to gather it or not. Shall I, shan’t I? It looked as if it was going to go out, but it didn’t. He didn’t want to give away a lineout near the corner, or a five-metre scrum. It was one man’s decision and circumstances went against him.”

Our six meetings since that unforgettable day have all been desperately close affairs, with winning margins of two, three, five and six points - and two draws. And as Lenny Kravitz said: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!”

Tickets for Wasps v Toulouse on Saturday 8 December are available from www.wasps.co.uk starting from £18 for adults, while Under 10s go free in certain areas.