Mark van Gisbergen is tackled by Gareth Thomas, Raphael Ibanez (Left) and Matt Dawson (Centre) watch on in the 2005 encounter with Toulouse.
BY Barney Burnham
Next weekend’s visitors to the Coventry Building Society Arena are the undisputed kings of European rugby. When they defeated La Rochelle in last season’s Champions Cup final, they became champions of Europe for the fifth time - in second place are Leinster, with four titles.
Next Saturday’s game will be the eleventh time Wasps and Toulouse have faced each other, which makes the reigning champions our most frequent European opponent - in second place are Leinster, with ten meetings.
It all began back in 1996/7, our first foray into the brave new world of European Cup rugby. Toulouse had been the inaugural winners, a year earlier. The competition had a very different look in those days. No four-team groups, with home and away fixtures. Groups consisted of five teams, and you played the other four sides only once.
Our campaign was already dead in the water when we met the reigning champions in our third pool game, at Loftus Road. A last-minute home defeat against Cardiff Blues had been followed by a crushing 49-22 loss to Munster, at Thomond Park. Coach Rob Smith described the match as ‘a complete debacle’, which left the usually loquacious Lawrence Dallaglio uncharacteristically speechless. Smith’s advice to his shell-shocked team was “Let’s go out and have a good night, and I’ll see you all in training when we get back.”
A week later, Dallaglio and his men produced one of the greatest European performances of all time, as the French superstars were put to the sword, to the implausible tune of 77 points to 17. The visitors had taken an early lead, but Wasps fought back to lead 23-10 at the break. The second half was one-way traffic, with the home side running in seven tries, including five in the last 22 minutes. The highlight was a spectacular score for Nick Greenstock, to round off a counter-attack started by fly-half Alex King in his own in-goal area.
If Wasps had been shell-shocked in Munster, Toulouse coach Guy Novès was left even more bewildered by events in Shepherd’s Bush. After the game, he said that it had been one of the worst days of his rugby career, commenting ruefully: “At first, it was a pleasant surprise to see an English side playing rugby like that. Then it became an unpleasant surprise! The waves just kept coming.” L’INCROYABLE DÉROUTE (THE INCREDIBLE ROUT) was the dramatic headline in one French newspaper. Another simply read OH! TOULOUSE. All-too-brief highlights can still be found on YouTube. Do yourself a favour and have a look!
Stuart Abbott scores in the Heineken Cup Final 2004.
Our second clash came seven-and-a-half years later, Toulouse were again reigning champions and we were up against them on the biggest stage of all - the 2004 Heineken Cup Final, at Twickenham. It was a thrilling encounter, with wave after wave of Toulouse attacks crashing against the walls of an indomitable Wasps defence. Man of the Match Joe Worsley was credited with a jaw-dropping total of 33 tackles, although several estimates gave him an even higher tally.
After Wasps had led for much of the game, the boot of Jean-Baptiste Élissalde made it 20-20, three minutes from time. With a Toulouse bench full of galacticos and extra-time looming large, Wasps fans feared the worst. Enter the Hand of (Rob) Howley.
The Welsh scrum-half gathered a 22 drop-out just inside the Toulouse half, a few metres in from the left touchline. He kicked towards the corner and set off in pursuit. Waiting behind the line was Toulouse full-back Clément Poitrenaud. 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 unfortunate Poitrenaud was so devastated that he locked himself inside the team bus for an hour, while ecstatic Wasps fans turned the car park around him into a huge party.
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.”
Trevor Leota and Lawrence Dallaglio celebrate after winning the Heineken Cup Final in 2004.
We only had to wait eighteen months for our next clash, when the two sides were drawn in the same pool for the 2005/6 Heineken Cup. Wasps had begun their campaign with an agonising last-minute 32-31 defeat in Edinburgh. Round two brought Toulouse to Adams Park for a tight encounter which ended all square at 15-all. Mark Van Gisbergen’s fifth penalty, deep into injury time, salvaged the draw.
When they met again in Round five at Le Stadium, Wasps needed a win to keep alive any faint hope of a quarter-final place. It was not to be, as they went down to a valiant 19-13 defeat.
Five years later, Wasps were back at Le Stadium, for Round one of the 2010/11 Heineken Cup. It was to be another desperately close encounter, played in monsoon-like conditions. Two minutes from time, Toulouse led 18-16, thanks to six David Skrela penalties, while Wasps had scored the only try of the game, through David Lemi. Fly-half Dave Walder then attempted a long-range penalty which drifted just wide of the post. Toulouse were home and hosed, rather than home and dry.
By the time we reached Round six, Wasps were out of the running for the knock-out stages, but a last-minute Lemi try snatched a dramatic 21-16 victory which denied the visitors a place in the last eight and secured the home side the consolation prize of a Challenge Cup quarter-final.
David Lemi challenges Clément Poitrenaud and Byron Kelleher in 2010.
The Heineken Cup had metamorphosed into the Champions Cup when Wasps and Toulouse were next drawn together, in 2016/17. After thrashing Zebre 82-14 at the Ricoh Arena in round 1, Dai Young’s side travelled to France to take on their old rivals at Stade Ernest Wallon. It was another absorbing encounter, which ended in a 20-all draw. After Nathan Hughes powered his way over for a late try, the nerveless Jimmy Gopperth landed a tricky conversion to take a share of the points.
When Toulouse came to Coventry in Round five, Wasps needed a win to remain on course for the last eight. They seemed to be on their way out when a penalty try and a yellow card for Danny Cipriani gave the visitors a 14-10 lead and a one-man advantage, a few minutes from time. With time up, Dan Robson took a quick penalty to dart over for an opportunist’s try and snatch a dramatic victory.
Our most recent meetings came three years ago, when we played the December back-to-back games, in Rounds three and four. A 52-3 defeat in Dublin and a 35-all home draw meant that Wasps already had only pride to play for, when Toulouse came to the Ricoh Arena. The French side were 24-16 winners, with the highlight of the afternoon being a memorable solo try by Toulouse winger Cheslin Kolbe. It was a score which evoked memories of Wasps favourite Christian Wade, who had departed a few weeks earlier, to pursue a career in American Football.
Antoine Dupont is tackled by Nizaam Carr and Ben Harris in 2018.
A week later, Toulouse were comfortable 42-27 winners at Stade Ernest Wallon, with a 22-year-old scrum-half scoring two of his side’s five tries. Whatever happened to Antoine Dupont?
Toulouse come here this weekend as reigning champions and Dupont was recently crowned World Player of the Year. Alongside him in the Toulouse line-up are half-back partner Romain Ntamack and several more of the exciting French side which recently defeated New Zealand. As challenges go, they don’t come harder than facing the best team in Europe, the best player in the world and a supporting cast of superstars. If you can’t get excited about a game like this, you should check your pulse!
Wasps record vs Toulouse
P10 W4 D2 L4
Pts for 249
Pts against 205
There has only been one away victory, when Toulouse won 24-16 in 2018.
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