1867-1914: The early years
Wasps was founded in 1867 in the Hampstead area of London by a group of members who previously had connections with Harlequins – or Hampstead FC as it was then known.
In addition, a strong link existed to Merchant Taylors, where the club’s first secretary William Alford had been educated.
His younger brother Fred was the first club captain, while Richard Pain was President.
The first fixture was staged at Primrose Hill, but no further records exist from the club’s inaugural season.
Early opponents regularly included local schools, when matches were played to the rugby rather than association football code, but “without tripping or hacking.”
The club’s familiar black-and-gold has largely remained unchanged since its inception, with black being the predominant feature of the early jersey.
Wasps were not part of the foundation of the 21-club RFU in 1871, according to folklore because the club’s meeting delegate attended the wrong pub. However, they had become members of the union 12 by March 1872.
The club’s early years were characterised by its nomadic status, indeed home games had been played at 12 different venues prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, while changing facilities and post-match hospitality were usually provided by local pubs.
The 1875/76 season saw Wasps, led by stockbroker Jack Angle, go unbeaten through the season, winning 14 games and drawing two, in a feat which the club has since repeated only once.
John Biggs also became the club’s first international in 1879, but a decade later most of these early Wasps had retired, and with the club also required to leave the Half Moon ground in Putney which had been home for 14 years, it faced difficult times.
However, the arrival of George Harnett as President brought about a gradual upturn in fortunes through the remainder of the pre-war period.
Indeed, by 1914 Wasps were running four sides from a ground in Acton which they had called home for over a decade.
1914-39: The inter-war years
Rugby was cancelled immediately following the outbreak of World War One, and Wasps’ secretary Jack Spiller soon reported that 92 per cent of the club’s active membership had joined the King’s forces.
Sadly, of the 150 or so young men with Wasps connections who served, 38 lost their lives in the course of the next four years.
When rugby recommenced in November 1918, a number of the club’s fixtures retained a strong military feel, since many opponents were made up of overseas’ servicemen still stationed in Britain.
By the mid-1920’s Wasps had moved from Ealing to Sudbury, and were once again fielding four XV’s on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it was not until 1923 that help from regular benefactor Albert Toley saw the club became established at the Vale Farm ground in Sudbury. This became a long-term home, subsequently known as Eton Avenue then Repton Avenue, which with help from the RFU the club eventually purchased from Toley in 1928.
Tragedy struck in 1928/9 when the club’s 23-year-old fly half Harold Clinch died as a result of an injury sustained during a match against Steatham.
By the end of the 1920’s, in an attempt to restore its waning first-class status, Wasps travelled further afield to face the likes of Newport and launched what was to become an annual Easter tour to places as far-flung as Somerset and Yorkshire.
This period also marked the first involvement with the club of Ronnie Swyer who became a key figure in its future development.
The former World War One pilot captained the club from 1925 to 1934, at one point playing 301 consecutive games in the back row.
After retiring from the field of play he served Wasps with distinction in the committee room and was twice President prior to his death in 1995 aged 101.
Wasps’ second unbeaten season, 1930/31, came during Swyer’s time at the helm, while the club’s powerful forward-based game also enabled it to go over four years and 50-plus matches unbeaten at home.
This upturn saw the club granted fixtures against a number of top-level clubs including London Scottish, Moseley, Richmond and London Welsh, while in 1933 Wasps reached the final of the Middlesex Sevens for the first time.
Neville Compton, the man regarded by many as Wasps’ most prominent pre-war player, featured in that Twickenham line-up, and he also became Wasps first Barbarian when he played against East Midlands in the Mobbs Memorial match.
When war arrived, the club was therefore in very good health, often running ten or more sides against a diverse range of opponents.
1939-63: World War Two and beyond
Rugby continued where possible during the Second World War, with Wasps being one of the fortunate clubs.
As a result, membership was opened up and a great many overseas servicemen took advantage, including 40 New Zealanders.
Neville Compton, who was in a reserved occupation, continued to feature as a goal-kicking second row, as he had since the mid-1920’s in a career which eventually spanned 21 seasons.
After this he served the club with distinction in a number of administrative roles prior to becoming President from 1970 to 73.
The temporary player arrangements during the war years also saw a number of internationals appear in black-and-gold, including players capped by Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In addition, two of the club’s own members, hooker Clarence Gilthorpe and scrum half Pat Sykes appeared for England in non-cap wartime internationals.
In 1947 a new stand – named after benefactor and former player Charles Bell – was constructed, which went on to serve the club for over 40 years.
And in 1949 a war memorial was erected which added 39 names from the 1939-45 conflict to those Wasps who lost their lives in World War One.
By now the club was again operating ten sides, with its first XV firmly among the elite, facing the likes of Cardiff, Gloucester, Coventry, Bath and Northampton on a regular basis.
Wasps lifted the prestigious Middlesex Sevens for the first time in 1948, when teenage wing sensation Ted Woodward made his first impression on the wider rugby public.
By the early 1950’s Wasps players were regularly winning selection for representative sides, and Woodward made his England debut against South Africa in 1952 while Bob Stirling who had recently joined the club from Leicester captained his country in the 1953 Five Nations.
Peter Yarranton also represented Wasps and England during this time, but it was for his post-playing days he will mostly be remembered as chairman of the Sports Council then RFU President.
By the end of the 1950’s Wasps regularly fielded 14 sides, while a membership of 1500 made it the biggest club in England and second biggest in Europe behind Paris-based Racing.
The club celebrated its 90th anniversary in style with a match at Twickenham, and by now flankers John Herbert and Ron Syrett had become full internationals.
Fly half Richard Sharp also became a Wasp in 1957, and went on to have an illustrious career for club and country.
This period also saw hooker Bill Treadwell make his first Wasps appearance, and more than half-a-century later the dentist - who many believe to be the finest stitcher of wounds around - remains an important part of the match-day team.
And with an impressive new clubhouse now in place thanks to a large donation from club member Reg Curner, and the work of another Wasp, architect Doug Harvey, the club approached its centenary season in good heart.
In 1967 Wasps joined an elite band of rugby centurions including Bath, Sale, Harlequins and Richmond, and celebrated with a match against Warwickshire on the Close at Rugby School plus a 36-8 home defeat at the hands of the Barbarians.
However, a difficult six-year spell followed, as a number of playing stalwarts retired or moved on. As a result, the club recorded a win/loss ratio well below 50/50, although 1973 ended with a first overseas tour when a party of 40 headed for East Africa.
Playing fortunes picked up by the mid-70’s, by when the John Player Cup had also become a regular feature for England’s leading clubs, and while Wasps made little progress ties against the likes of Gloucester drew big crowds.
A number of southern hemisphere internationals played for the club during this period, most notably All Black centre Mark Taylor, fresh from New Zealand’s 1978 British Isles tour, who went on to captain the club for three seasons in the early 1980’s.
The club reached the John Player Cup semi-final for the first time in 1978/9, while the arrival at Sudbury of England forwards Roger Uttley and Nigel Horton plus a youthful Nigel Melville also provided a major boost to a side which went on to enjoy an outstanding start to the 1980’s.
A stream of Oxbridge blues also featured during this spell, including the likes of Chris Oti, Fran Clough, Huw Davies, Mark Bailey and Rob Andrew, and the club’s strength was shown when it lifted the London merit table and Middlesex Sevens in 1984.
And better followed in the next two seasons, when Wasps reached the John Player Cup final for the first and second times, only to slip to 25-17 and 19-12 defeats at the hands of Bath.
Ivor Montlake played a prominent part in the club at this time, including being the driving force behind a number of projects which greatly improved the Sudbury facilities. He subsequently went on to devote endless hours behind the scenes as club secretary and was heavily involved in his club’s transition to professionalism a decade later.
1987 saw the introduction of a national league system which has remained to the present day. Wasps were placed in the first division of the Courage League alongside some traditional heavyweights such as Leicester, Bath, Gloucester and Harlequins, plus the likes of Waterloo and Orrell, whose names will be less familiar to younger rugby supporters.
Having pushed the all-conquering Bath side close in the previous two cup finals, it was no surprise when the black-and-golds played a prominent role in the inaugural league season, eventually finishing as runners-up behind Leicester.
After six Wasps had featured in England’s squad for the 1987 World Cup, plus Gareth Rees and Norm Hadley for Canada, a third-place finish followed in 1988/89 before the title came to Sudbury for the first time in 1990 when a final day win over Saracens was accompanied by Gloucester’s defeat at Nottingham.
In 1990/91 the club’s consistent form delivered a second runners-up spot – this time behind Bath – but a year later, despite the presence of 1991 England World Cup stars Paul Rendall, Jeff Probyn and Rob Andrew plus the likes of Huw Davies and Damian Hopley, the club slipped to seventh.
An excellent 1992/93 season saw Wasps win 11 of their 12 league games – the league was still 12 months away from a home-and-away arrangement at this point – but again finish behind Bath on points difference.
However, the club did manage to lift the Middlesex Sevens with a line-up that included Lawrence Dallaglio who had been part of England’s sevens World Cup win a few weeks earlier.
After an indifferent 1993/94 season, Wasps finished third behind champions Leicester and cup winners Bath 12 months later, although their consolation came in the form of a rare away win at Welford Road in the cup semi-final and the selection of Andrew and Hopley for the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.
Few would, therefore, dispute that Wasps sat alongside Bath and Leicester at the top of the English pyramid when the advent of professionalism in August 1995 heralded the dawn of a new era.
Newcastle were fastest off the mark following the IRB announcement, recruiting Rob Andrew as their new rugby director and soon adding his Wasps club captain Dean Ryan and scrum-half Steve Bates to lead their charge for the title.
These departures led to Lawrence Dallaglio being appointed as skipper at Sudbury, while a new era was also ushered in off the field since entrepreneur and Chrysalis founder Chris Wright purchased a controlling interest in both Wasps and Queens Park Rangers and took the newly-formed professional outfit into Shepherd’s Bush-based ground share at Loftus Road.
A change in the club’s coaching structure also followed, as former player and long-serving Wasp Rob Smith gave way to Nigel Melville, who became Wasps’ first professional rugby director.
Early games saw crowds of close to 10,000 flock to watch big-name signing Inga Tuigamala plus the likes of Kenny Logan, Alex King and Will Green clinch the title with a game in hand after losing only three of their 22 matches.
English clubs entered the Heineken Cup for the first time in 1996/97, but with little early success for a Wasps side which failed to emerge from its pool before losing to Brive in the quarter-finals 12 months later.
A fourth English cup final defeat – this time at the hands of Saracens – also followed, before in 1999 Wasps finally captured a trophy which had eluded them for over a quarter of a century when a Josh Lewsey-inspired side beat Newcastle 29-19 at Twickenham.
Northampton ensured Wasps again exited Europe in the last-eight stage in 1999/2000, but Melville’s team turned this result round a few weeks later to claim a second English cup win with a 31-23 final win.
In 2001, in an attempt to address the financial issues which typified so much of the early years of professional rugby, Wright bought Wasps out of the arrangement with QPR and established London Wasps Holdings Ltd.
Ties to Sudbury were totally severed by the start of the 2001/02 campaign when Wasps amateur club relocated to Twyford Avenue, Acton, where it remains to the current day, and where the professional side was to train until its relocation to Coventry nearly two decades later.
On the pitch, even the arrival of coach Shaun Edwards and Kiwis Ian Jones and Craig Dowd was unable to arrest a very poor 2001/02 season, which saw the end of Melville’s seven-year term of office, with former Ireland boss Warren Gatland taking the helm.
The former Kiwi hooker immediately went about establishing a winning culture at the club, with a group of players that now contained British Lions scrum-half Rob Howley as well as a host of England internationals including Lawrence Dallaglio, Phil Greening and Josh Lewsey.
By now, Wasps had also bid farewell to Loftus Road. They began the 2002/03 season as tenants of Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park ground, where attendances quickly increased by almost 50 per cent from the 6,000 or so who had regularly attended at QPR.
There was also some winning rugby to watch since Gatland’s team finished second in the Premiership before beating Northampton in the semi-final to clinch a Twickenham appearance against table-topping Gloucester, who by now had former Wasps Nigel Melville and Dean Ryan at the helm.
And in a game which has gone down in Wasps folklore, the cherry-and-whites, who had headed the league table by 15 points, were demolished 39-3.
This success was also repeated in Europe’s second-tier Parker Pen Challenge Cup, where a home-and-away last eight double over Stade Francais and two-legged semi-final success over Pontypridd were precursors to a famous win over Bath in a ten-try final staged at Reading’s Madejski Stadium.
The early stages of 2003/04 were played against the backdrop of England’s World Cup win, in which Dallaglio, Lewsey, Worsley, Simon Shaw and Stuart Abbott all played important roles.
And six months later, their club returned to Twickenham to claw their way to a defence-led 10-6 Premiership final win over Bath.
But before then the black-and-golds had lifted the biggest club trophy of them all – the Heineken Cup – for a first time with a 27-20 success over Toulouse.
Qualification for the knock-out stages came via a very hard earned away win at Perpignan, after which Gloucester and Munster proved tough opponents on the road to HQ, where 73,057 fans witnessed a thrilling final, decided by Rob Howley’s last-gasp, kick-and-chase try.
This left the club with a historic double – but with their feet kept firmly on the floor after also being dumped out of the English Cup by Birmingham & Solihull (then known as Pertemps Bees) in one of the biggest rugby union giant-killing acts of all time.
Gatland’s three-year term at the helm ended in 2005, but only after his place in Wasps history was confirmed by a third consecutive title win courtesy of a 39-14 final win over Leicester.
The man who went on to become a Lions coaching legend was replaced at Wasps’ helm by one who already enjoyed that status – Ian McGeechan.
And the Scot immediately signed Raphael Ibanez, the French international hooker who went on to become an integral figure in subsequent events.
2005/06 brought a semi-final defeat in the Premiership and pool stage exit in Europe, but Wasps did at least get their hands on one trophy, in the form of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, which had replaced the English Cup. This was secured with a 26-10 win over Scarlets.
The arrival in Wycombe of England World Cup winner Phil Vickery captured the headlines ahead of the following campaign, but by the end of it, a second Heineken Cup was very much the centre of attention.
An away win in Castres secured a home quarter-final, after which Leinster and Northampton were seen off – Saints in a Paul Sackey-dominated semi-final which took place at the Ricoh Arena.
The final pitted Dallaglio’s side against familiar foes Leicester, and after a pair of smartly-worked lineout moves produced tries for Ibanez and Eoin Reddan, the black-and-golds claimed a 25-9 success.
Seven Wasps - skipper Dallaglio, Vickery, Lewsey, Sackey, Simon Shaw, Tom Rees and Joe Worsley – were then part of England’s 2007 World Cup near miss, alongside a big group of Tigers.
The rivalry between Wasps and the East Midlands giants was now at the forefront of the English game, and the pair squared up again in the 2007/08 Premiership final.
And tries from Rees and Lewsey ensured once again McGeechan’s team came out on top – this time 26-16 – to claim a tenth final win in as many years and provide the retiring Dallaglio and Fraser Waters with the perfect send-off.
After a decade of unprecedented success, Chris Wright and his business partner John O’Connell sold their Wasps shares to Steve Hayes, MD of Wycombe Wanderers.
And with Shaun Edwards and Ian McGeechan respectively involved with Wales and the Lions, there was also change in the coaching ranks where Tony Hanks returned to the fold as a precursor to taking over from the Scot as rugby director.
With a spate of injuries also biting hard, perhaps unsurprisingly Wasps slipped to a seventh-placed Premiership finish in 2008/9, the lowest since 2002, and also failed to escape their European pool.
2009/10 began more promisingly, but Wasps slipped badly in the post-Christmas period during which they were also eliminated in the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup by David Young’s Cardiff Blues.
Worse followed in 2010/11, as Phil Vickery was forced into retirement, and after Hanks departed mid-season caretaker boss Leon Holden guided the club to a ninth-placed league finish.
Off the field, Hayes was foiled in his bid to establish a ‘sports village’ development to jointly house Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers. Despite having now attracted the considerable talents of David Young to be his new director of rugby, this substantial blow was enough for the club to be placed on the open market in October 2011.
The former Wales and Lions tight head could scarcely have faced a tougher baptism in English rugby, as this off-field uncertainty was followed by a series of injury-enforced retirements to the likes of Steve Thompson, Joe Worsley, Tom Rees and John Hart.
Young was therefore forced to throw a host of young players including Christian Wade, Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones and Elliot Daly into Premiership action, and in the process lay the foundations of the side which subsequently moved to Coventry.
However, short-term prospects looked far less promising, and only Tom Varndell’s round 21 bonus-point clinching tackle on Bath’s Sam Vesty sentenced Newcastle rather than Young’s team to the drop.
Given the parlous state of the club’s finances, relegation was almost certainly have spelt the end of the road. However, this Varndell-driven respite proved temporary since in late 2012 the club faced a large unpaid debt to HMRC which again threatened its existence.
The saviour arrived in the form of current owner Derek Richardson, an Irish businessman who was also a keen rugby fan, who saw the club through this immediate cash-flow problem prior to purchasing Wasps Holdings Ltd from Hayes.
On the field Young’s team experienced a steady upturn in fortunes, with an eighth-place finish and European Challenge Cup quarter-final appearance, while Wade was named as both Premiership player-of-the-season and young player-of-the-season.
Twelve months on, a now stabilised club had made further progress, finishing seventh in the league and clinching a return to the European Champions Cup for 2014/15 with a memorable two-legged win in a playoff contest against Stade Francais.
Richardson immediately identified that being tenants in a stadium where the owners control the majority of non-ticket income was an unsustainable commercial position, and began seeking alternatives.
In autumn 2013, the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, which was owned by Coventry City Council and the Higgs Charitable Trust and had recently been vacated by tenants Coventry City FC, came to his attention, and after a series of talks it became clear that purchasing the 32,000-capacity stadium was a viable proposition.
The deal was done in time for Wasps to host London Irish in Christmas 2014. A week after 6,507 fans saw their team pay an emotional farewell to Adams Park with a 44-17 European Champions Cup win over Castres, no fewer than 28,524 supporters saw Cov kid Andy Goode claim a Premiership record 33 points in Wasps’ 48-16 win over the Exiles.
The Ricoh experience certainly inspired Young’s team, who reached the last eight in the Champions Cup before losing in Toulon, and climbed a further position up the Premiership table to sixth.
The first 18 months in Coventry presented a logistical challenge, however, since the return of Coventry City to the Ricoh dictated most home games took place on a Sunday.
With training still based in Acton, where thriving Wasps amateurs ensured Twyford Avenue was otherwise occupied on Saturdays, Dai Young’s side often faced a 36-hour round trip and overnight hotel stay for a home game.
Gradually the club’s backroom staff and players relocated north, until by the beginning of the 2016/17 season the club was based fully in Coventry – at the Ricoh Arena and a training base a few miles away at one of Warwickshire’s traditional junior rugby powerhouses, Broadstreet RFC.
Prior to this, a very successful 2015/16 season saw Wasps return to the Premiership semi-finals for the first time since 2008, and also reach the final four in the European Champions Cup.
Young’s squad had been boosted by the signings of All Black Charles Piutau and legendary Wallaby George Smith, plus Kiwi No.10 Jimmy Gopperth, all of whom made a telling impact on the campaign.
And it was the former Newcastle and Leinster fly half who produced perhaps the most memorable Coventry moment to date, when his touchline conversion with the final kick of the game saw off Champions Cup quarter-final opponents Exeter.
However, the Chiefs later exacted revenge by ending Wasps’ league season at the semi-final stage, while the European campaign drew to a conclusion at the hands of Saracens.
Christian Wade grabbed a record-equalling six tries during Wasps’ league win at Worcester in early 2016, and the pacy winger went on to enjoy an outstanding campaign 12 months later during which he equalled Dominic Chapman’s longstanding Premiership try-scoring record by touching down 17 times in the season.
By now Springbok Willie Le Roux and Aussie Kurtley Beale had replaced Smith and Piutau as the club’s big overseas stars, while half-back pairing Dan Robson and Danny Cipriani enjoyed prolific campaigns.
Young’s team raced to the top of the table - and stayed there – clinching a play-off berth with four rounds of action remaining as well as securing a last eight place in Europe.
They then saw off Midlands rivals Leicester in a heart-stopping home Premiership semi-final before only being pipped in extra time at Twickenham by Exeter, after Leinster had earlier ended their European hopes in an Aviva Stadium quarter-final.
Elliot Daly and James Haskell won selection for the 2017 Lions, and at one stage the club’s unbeaten home run extended beyond 18 months.
Hopes were therefore high for 2017/18, only for an injury-ravaged autumn to put Wasps on the back foot.
Indeed, after suffering five consecutive league defeats during this spell, Young’s team did well to finish third in the table, prior to suffering a semi-final defeat at the hands of eventual champions Saracens.