Wasps Unforgettables

CRAIG DOWD

His father played for Suburbs, one of Auckland’s leading clubs. As a child, he played touch rugby at Eden Park, alongside future All Blacks Mark Carter and Eroni Clarke. After two years with New Zealand Colts, he made his Auckland debut in 1991. His first international cap was in 1993.

Ten years in the Auckland side which dominated domestic and Super rugby, with 60 caps in a seven-year international career. He packed down for province and country with Sean Fitzpatrick and Olo Brown in a legendary front row which was responsible for introducing the ‘hit’.

Joined Wasps in 2001; retired from playing in 2005; spent three years as forwards coach, before returning to New Zealand, where he coached North Harbour.

 

WASPS MEMORIES

I decided to leave New Zealand when I was picked for an All Black training camp that was going to be based in Palmerston North for three months. My wife was six months pregnant and I had to get permission to attend the birth of my son.

I met Nigel Melville, but I was also looking at Leeds and Edinburgh. Zinzan Brooke advised me to join Wasps. He said their squad was so strong that I wouldn’t be the big name expected to carry the team. It was the best decision I ever made, and I made it for the family. Apart from European trips and some games in Newcastle, I could sleep in my own bed every night and be a husband and a dad.

That first season was tough. We had a truckload of injuries and things didn’t go well. Some players were pointing the finger at others and I spoke out about that, saying that the first person you should question is yourself. We managed to get Ian Jones to come out of retirement and help out. Nigel had spoken to me about him, and I was the one who put in the call.

One of the first games I remember was a Heineken Cup match against Stade Français, at Loftus Road. One of their forwards came up behind me and whacked me in the face with a huge fist. Welcome to Europe!

I loved our European trips. It was a chance to experience different cultures and atmospheres and some games were Test matches in all but name. I’ll never forget that battle in Perpignan. It was like Daniel in the lions’ den, but the supporters played a huge part that afternoon. Having so many behind us made us feel much less alone. Fans are far more important than they realise. Without them, there’s no game.

Another great thing about the European trips was the evenings out. There was the time in Italy when I researched the local wine (intensively) and went back to the hotel in the back of a dustcart - but I still made my recovery session that morning! Maybe the best night was after that epic game at Lansdowne Road, against Munster. It was like a sea of red in the stadium, but our supporters again made themselves heard. Unfortunately, that was my last big game of the season. I had a slight Achilles strain, then pulled it the following week, at Gloucester. Everybody made me feel involved in the buildup to the final, but I was bitterly disappointed to miss out. When I was watching, my emotions were tossed around, as if they were in a washing machine. One minute up, the next minute down. But at the end - sheer joy.

When I joined, part of the deal was that I’d also be coaching. In my final playing season, I worked with the A team. When I moved in to the first team role, having experienced people like Ian McGeechan, Shaun Edwards and Leon Holden alongside me really made it an easy transformation. That coaching team also found some great bars and restaurants in Europe!

We won the Anglo-Welsh Cup in the first year. The following year, it was the Heineken Cup again. Having people like Raph Ibanez, Phil Vickery and Tom Palmer in the pack was absolutely crucial. I left before the end of the 07/08 season. My final game was a Friday night at Newcastle. I gave a dressing room speech which some have described as Churchillian! Then, we learnt that the game was off because the wind had snapped one of the posts and damaged part of the roof. We just got in the bus and went home.

When Auckland dominated, they were simply miles better than anybody else. Even though it was still an amateur sport, they were so professional in everything they did. When Wasps were winning everything, competition was much more intense. We weren’t miles better than the rest, but we had the winning edge and we were all prepared to go to the wall for the team. Also, the fitness programme Craig White and Paul Stridgeon introduced was absolutely revolutionary. We led the way and now everybody has followed suit.

Another thing I loved about being here was that it wasn’t like being in a goldfish bowl. At home, everybody recognised you and they still do. Here, you were largely anonymous. Last year, I was in the UK on business, and I went out to the old training ground, for old times’ sake. I went into the bar and had a pint and nobody knew who I was. I loved that.

 

CURRENT INVOLVEMENT

I do a regular ESPN column. It’s fun and I like to stir things up! I did Sky NZ commentary for three or four years, but I stopped, because business was taking up so much time. I’m a partner in d3, who make strapping tape. We were formed in 2010 and now have clients all over the world, in rugby and other sports. That keeps me involved. I don’t have the time to watch a lot of rugby, but I keep an eye on the tables.

Skill levels in the Northern Hemisphere are now much higher. It helps that pitches are so much better. When I played, some surfaces were not conducive to running rugby.

The game has changed enormously. I sometimes think we’re losing touch. The worst thing that ever happened was doing away with proper rucking. If it was brought back, the breakdowns would be much tidier. I don’t like the scrum being used as something to milk penalties. It’s supposed to be a means of restarting the game. I’d do away with scrum penalties. It should be free-kicks, or another scrum.

I have a lot of respect for referees. They now have a huge amount on their shoulders and their instructions from above keep changing, but I think they should have less say in setting the scrums. That should be left to the players. They would sort it out.

ALEX KING

More than just a legend, Alex was an all-time Wasps great. He joined the club in 1996 and spent eleven years as first choice fly-half, during which time we won ten trophies. He made over 250 appearances and scored nearly 1500 points, before bowing out with victory in the 2007 Heineken Cup Final.

After a season as a Clermont-Auvergne player, he joined their coaching staff and helped them win the French championship in 2009/10. He moved to Northampton ahead of the 2013/14 season, which ended with them winning the Premiership. After three seasons with the Saints, he returned to France as Montpellier's backs coach. During his three years there, they finished top of the Top 14 in 2017/18, but lost the final. He was the Wales backs coach in the 2017 Six Nations and has just been named as Gloucester's new attack coach.

 

FIRST GAME - LOFTUS ROAD - 8/9/96

It was a great occasion. It was my first game for the club, there was a big crowd and we were up against Saracens, who’d spent a lot of money on some of the biggest names in world rugby. Francois Pienaar and Philippe Sella were in their side, and my opposite number was one of the greatest fly-halves the game has ever seen, Michael Lynagh.

I know I was involved in the moment when he got injured and had to go off. I think it might have been a double tackle, and Lawrence was definitely involved. I’ll probably have to watch the recording again.

We played some great rugby and had a really good win, but Michael got his own back the following season, when he completely dominated the cup final.

 

TOULOUSE - HEINEKEN CUP POOL GAME, 26/10/96, LOFTUS ROAD

We’d been badly beaten by Munster the week before. I didn’t play in that game, but I can remember the atmosphere during the week. Toulouse were the reigning champions, but we played them off the park. I can remember Nick Greenstock getting a couple of great tries. I think Paul Sampson and Shane Roiser also scored. We played some amazing rugby that day. Even though we were already out of Europe, it gave us enormous confidence and really put us on the European map.

 

LEAGUE TITLE - 1996/97

It was my first season, and I’d heard all the stories about winning the league in 1990. This was the first fully professional season, and the team really came together. The club had been through two or three years when quite a few players had left. Lawrence took over the captaincy, so we had a young English international as captain and young, ambitious players. Nigel Melville really got us to the maximum of our ability.

I remember winning the title up at Northampton, on the penultimate weekend. I didn’t play the full 80 minutes, because Matt Dawson kneed me in the back, and I had to leave the field, squealing like a pig. But I managed to get up into the stand to collect the trophy and I shall always remember the photo of me and Lawrence, holding it up.

Then we went back to Sudbury. I used to love Sudbury. It summed up the way Wasps were. Hard-working, rough and ready - the heart of the club. We went into the old bar there and celebrated long into the night. There was also a party at Twickenham, a few days later. I remember spending the whole evening with Rob Henderson, which probably wasn’t the best thing to do!

 

1999 CUP FINAL v NEWCASTLE

Josh almost always played well for Wasps, but I think he really showed his class in that game in particular. That was the year when we arrived in taxis. If you do that, you simply have to win, and we put in a great team performance. I think it laid the foundations for the next few years.

I didn’t score many tries, so I always enjoyed it, when I did get over. To score in a cup final was even better. Lots of people will confirm that I was cuddling a TV until late that night, when it was replaying the game in the Sports Cafe. It was a good try. It opened up, and I think I had the fullback to beat. I kicked over the top, chip-and-chase, and I beat Gary Armstrong in a foot race, which surprised even me. I almost dislocated my shoulder in scoring, when Paul Sampson jumped on top of me.

 

2002/03 PPCC AND PREMIERSHIP

Nigel had done an amazing job for us, but I think Gatland just brought a new level of professionalism and fitness to the team. He brought (fitness coach) Craig White into the club and I think we went undefeated for the last seven games of 01/02. That really set the platform for 02/03.

We’d signed Craig Dowd, from New Zealand, and Rob Howley, from Wales, but we had a lot of ambitious English players, like Shawsie and Worzel. We had the foundations for a really good team, and we went on to enjoy great success under Warren, then Geech. We had three DORs in my eleven years with Wasps and the team really developed.

I know Warren thinks we would probably have won the Heineken Cup that year, had we been in it. It’s hard to say, because the teams you’re playing in the Challenge Cup aren’t quite of the same standard, but there were some stand-out games, like going to Paris and beating Stade Français, in the second leg of the quarter-finals. Fraser (Waters) had a great game that night, as he usually did for Wasps.

Although we finished well behind Gloucester in the league, we produced probably our best performance of the whole year against them, in the final, at Twickenham. It was a blistering hot day and I think we were lucky that we’d had the game against Bath, the previous week, which was also in the heat. It’s gone into Wasps folklore that we trained with bin-liners under our shirts to recreate what it was going to be like in such high temperatures. It all worked out on the day, for two weekends running. It was a fantastic performance against Gloucester..

Winning a couple of trophies that year really set the stage for the following season. We were determined to go one better and win the Heineken Cup.

 

2003/04 HEINEKEN CUP AND PREMIERSHIP DOUBLE

The final pool game, in Perpignan, was amazing. There were at least a dozen citings against Perpignan players, and there was a very hostile crowd. It was a really sensational performance to go out and beat a French team, which had everything to play for. We were booed, as we went on to the field, and applauded as we left, so I think we really earned some respect that day.

We had a convincing win in the quarter-final, against Gloucester, to set up a semi-final against Munster, at Lansdowne Road. It was a truly epic game. European semi-finals are special occasions, but they don’t come much more special than playing an Irish team in Dublin, in front of a sea of red shirts.

Trevor Leota had an absolutely immense game - in the tight and in the loose, and he scored the winning try, in the corner. It was just a magical day and an amazing game. The lead changed hands several times and we were down by ten points, with about ten, fifteen minutes to go, but we found a way to win. Tom Voyce also had a great game and Paul Volley was immense, but it was a team performance from fifteen players who were willing to sacrifice anything.

The final was an absolutely brilliant game. Toulouse played some of the best rugby I’ve ever been involved with. 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. If their finishing had been better, they’d have probably been out of sight. But we just stuck in there, and a good home crowd at Twickenham probably got us through.

I’m just thankful that Rob chased his own kick down the touchline in the 79th minute, to win us the game. We were heading for extra time and my legs were like jelly. It would have been a real test for us, if it had gone to extra time. Thankfully, we just managed to hang on and register a famous win.

Poitrenaud went on to win another couple of Heineken Cups with Toulouse, and he was a great servant of the club. I’m just thankful that, for those few seconds, he wasn’t quite at the races.

Somehow, we managed to beat Bath in the Premiership final, six days later. That was the day Trevor was really struggling in the lineout and somebody in the backline asked me which move we’d be doing off our lineout and I just said that we needed to form our blitz defence, because it was certain that we were going to lose possession. I can’t remember whether it was Fraser or Stuart Abbott. Those two never stopped talking, which was probably one of their strengths.

We simply had to win that game, because losing would have been a bad way to end the season. Winning the double was a very special thing, which very few sides have done. Anybody that does has special players, a special team and special coaches.

 

2007 HEINEKEN CUP

I’d been in discussions with Geech about whether I’d stay for another year, but I realised the game against Leicester was probably going to be my last major final. Heineken Cup finals are rare things, and to play in my second one was incredible.

I didn’t play for six weeks before the final. I was injured in the quarter-final against Leinster, when Eoin Reddan played brilliantly. We beat Northampton in the semi-final and had a trial match the week before the final - Probables against Possibles. The Possibles won, but we only played for about 40 minutes. Tim Payne had been injured, a week or two earlier, and Tom French stepped up and played really well in the final, which was his first team debut.

For me, it was just a case of getting on to the pitch. Thankfully, all the physios and medics did everything they could, and they managed to get me out there. I lasted the eighty minutes, probably on pure adrenalin, and to beat Leicester was immense.

It was an amazing day and an amazing way to end my Wasps career. I really wanted to savour it. We were in the England dressing room and there's a picture somewhere, of me with my 50th Heineken match cap on, with the trophy, in those famous Twickenham baths. I remember we then had a great night in the Crown, in St Margaret’s.

It was probably the best possible way to bow out.

 

Rob Smith

Rob Smith is a true Wasps great. He served the Club for nearly 40 years – 11 (1974-85) as a regular first-team back-rower, then nearly 30 as a coach, leading the Club to league titles in 1989/90 and 1996/97, before taking charge of the Academy and producing a constant stream of international players.

EARLY DAYS

As a kid, I was an all-rounder with athletics, cricket and soccer, but never played rugby until I was 11.
I played for Bristol while I was still at school, then went to Borough Road College for three years, before starting teaching. When a mate said: “I’m off training at Wasps”, I went along with him. I knew it’d be good craic, as I knew several former college lads who were already there.

I joined as a player in 1974. Leighton Williams was the coach and we also had an Army P.T. guy, who used to run us like crazy. We’d train hard for a couple of hours then you were sometimes in the bar until 2am, then off to work the following morning. Leighton always put little things down on paper after games. I’ve still got one of mine, from a game against Cardiff. Gareth Edwards told him that he thought I’d played really well. Quite a motivation!

I’d trained pre-season and was picked for the first game of the season - against Bristol! I was dropped, but the next game was at Newport. Some of the guys who were picked knew how hard it was playing in Wales, so quite a few cried off, and I was back in the team. I was never dropped again.

I honestly don’t know exactly how the Cambridge connection began. Possibly something to do with getting a job in London. John Gasson seemed to be behind it. He knew a lot about people like Huw Davies, Mark Bailey, Chris Oti, Alan Buzza, Rob Andrew and had contacts in the city and the property business, so he was able to help them get set up.

I finished playing in 1985 and began coaching. By the time professionalism arrived, methods hadn’t changed much. Facilities were slightly better - we had a physio room by then! We were doing more analysis, but it was all done pitchside by people with pencils, ticking off tackles and seeing individual contributions. There was far more understanding of other teams and how they played, but it was all very broad - nothing like as detailed and specific as nowadays - and it was probably about as much as players could take in. I sometimes think there’s almost too much detail now. A player has his default setting, which you can’t change. When you’re under pressure, you revert to that setting.

 

SUDBURY MEMORIES

The pitch had a big slope, it was quite open on two sides and it turned into a mudbath every year. We were a long way down the pecking order compared with other senior clubs. We envied places like Leicester and Gloucester for their grounds and the crowds and atmosphere they used to get. We created an atmosphere at Sudbury, with people hanging over the benches and right in your face, but we struggled to handle a couple of thousand.

The clubhouse eventually got upgraded and the facilities and infrastructure were improved. We got a physio room, which was interesting. Previously, we never had anybody under physio or injured - they were all out training. The first night we had the physio room, about 20 people lined up, waiting for treatment.

We installed floodlights which sorted out some of the props. When we were running around the pitch, they’d hide, have
a rest, then come out a couple of laps later. Once the lights were there, they had no hiding place. I think some of them used to try to cut the wires!

 

After the game turned professional, they did get planning permission to upgrade the place. They might have been able to get it up to the 10,000-capacity required, but it wasn’t suitable to develop. It was difficult to get to, surrounded by residential streets. Ten-thousand people trying to get in there at the weekend would have been a nightmare.

 

THE WASPS WAY

Winning the league in 1990 was really special, as it was back in the old days, and everyone in the Club was part of it. Going into the final game, Gloucester were odds-on favourites. They were away at Nottingham while we were at home to Saracens. We won, then news came trickling through that Gloucester had lost, and we were champions. Next thing, the boys were up on the balcony, holding up the trophy. We threw ourselves into a typical Wasps celebration. No holds barred, everyone together. It was marvellous.

I think what really built up the Wasps way of doing things was touring. You built up great camaraderie and closeness in the squad. Word went around that we were going on tour, and new players turned up. Once they’d been, they’d stay, and the whole thing started to snowball.

A huge amount of credit has to go to people like Alan Black for generating this enthusiasm and enjoyment. I remember one tour to the Far East. We all piled into the airport lounge - a load of yobbish-looking, battered, drunken rugby players. People just cringed, but Blacky just got the boys going, with some singing and play-acting. Before long, other people were joining in. Kids, old folk - everyone was having a great time.

There was an incredible tour to Sweden, with the second and third teams. After one of the games the whole village was circled all the way round, with the whole team all singing away merrily all night. People who hadn’t even been to the rugby came and joined in. The attitude was: “We’re here to have a good time, but not at your expense. You’re part of us as well.”

That characteristic stayed with the Club and I think it’s probably still there now. Respect everyone else. We’re not there to be idiots and make fools of ourselves and upset everybody. We want everyone else to come on board.

After an 11-year playing career, Rob Smith retired and began coaching Wasps in 1985. Under his guidance, they reached two domestic cup finals, before winning the Courage League in 1989/90.

The game went professional in the summer of 1995. Within weeks, Wasps had lost Rob Andrew, Dean Ryan and other senior players, who had all signed for Sir John Hall’s Newcastle.

ROB’S MEMORIES

When all those players left for Newcastle, Lawrence Dallaglio was the obvious choice to succeed Dean as captain. It was clear that he had huge respect from the other players.

The important thing is that it’s a team game and you have to keep everyone together, going in the same direction. I was completely confident that Lawrence would achieve that, but I couldn’t have predicted just how successful he’d be.

When it came to choosing the Director of Rugby for the first professional season, I didn’t think I had the skillset for the job. I preferred to just carry on coaching, which is what I enjoyed.

All sorts of names were being put forward and I eventually had a hissy fit with a few people and said: “I just can’t understand why you aren’t offering the job to Nigel Melville. He’s already at the Club.”

They said: “What do you mean, he’s already at the Club?” I told them that he’d been helping me for a year and was perfect for the role.

It was very pleasing to win the league in 1997 as we’d come close several times in the past but it just felt different to the amateur days. You knew that the next day you just had to get back to work and start rebuilding for next season.

In the old days, you could just relax and enjoy yourselves a little bit more and far more people were directly involved. Despite that, the party which celebrated the title was certainly decent. We won the game at Northampton, then everybody went back to Sudbury and got stuck in.

That big Heineken Cup win against Toulouse (77- 17 in 1996) was really satisfying, particularly after the complete debacle in Munster the previous week, when we lost 49-22.

After every game, Lawrence would make some sort of speech and start a discussion in the changing rooms. Limerick was the only time I ever told him to just sit down. He was struggling for words to explain what had happened. I just said: “Okay, this is what happened, 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.”

During the week, we hardly spoke at all. We just focused on the game. Toulouse were already almost guaranteed a place in the next round but it was still very satisfying for us to produce such a performance, something that we could build on for the rest of the season.

When Warren Gatland arrived in 2002, we had a great youth set-up, with some of the best teams in the country in all the age-groups. The Under 21s won the play-off final at Twickenham that year. That success was down to a group of guys like Geoff Strange, Greg Soffe, Alex Finch and Phil Moyle and others, who’d put it all together in 1982. That structure had played a huge part in making us one of the strongest sides in the country.

Warren recognised the huge gap between age-group and Premiership levels. He wanted to change things and the Academy system had kicked in by then. We had about 25- 30 lads listed as academy players and he knew that only about two or three would ever make it to the top.

So we went from about 60-odd youth players down to about six in the Academy - people like John Hart, Mike McCarthy, Ali McKenzie, Ben Gotting. At the end of that season, I had to sit everybody down and tell a lot of guys that they’d have to move on, as we were abandoning the age-groups and would be focusing solely on the Academy. It’s still a horrible memory.

The Academy was a passion and was initially about identifying and developing internationals. Early on, Wasps had twice as many youth internationals as everybody else put together.

Around April or May, I used my regular academy notes for the match programme, as a way of saying goodbye. I listed all the Club’s values and said that these would always go with you.

Once A Wasp, Always A Wasp.

The saying had been around for a long time but it certainly wasn’t widely used. The next season, it was suddenly being used as a sort of strapline. It appeared on the back of shirts - all sorts of things. It’s just something that seems to have stuck.

The Academy was a passion and was initially about identifying and developing internationals. Early on, Wasps had twice as many youth internationals as everybody else put together. From there, about two players a year went straight into the senior squad - James Haskell and Tom Rees, then Danny Cipriani and Dom Waldouck etc.

Senior training and playing were vital to their development. We had great success over the years, through to Joe Simpson, Elliot Daly, Christian Wade, Billy Vunipola, Sam Jones, Joe Launchbury, etc.

As a youngster, Danny saw things nobody else could. He’s two or three moves ahead of everyone else and works it all out in an instant. As a coach, you wanted him to do one thing but he’d do something else, and was often right. You ended up looking like a lemon.

THOUGHTS ON THE MODERN GAME

It’s often said that players are now over-coached and can’t play off the cuff anymore. I think that’s more the case in England than anywhere else.

Some coaches just go for broad principles and patterns and maybe just highlight a couple of things where they want
to focus the attention. Others go into monstrous detail. I wonder which method is best but I know what I prefer.

Sport science has grown as the game has become more attritional. The old principle still dominates - “GO FORWARD”, either by carries, quality passing or kicking.

These days, passing comes third but offloading is coming back with the new tackle directive. That can only get better and raise creativity and excitement.

I’d like to see the penalty-to-the-corner ruling changed to only allow lineouts on or outside the 22.

GEORGE SKIVINGTON

George joined Wasps in 2001, having been part of the Saracens Academy. In nine years in Black and Gold, he made over 120 appearances. Was part of the squads which won three Premiership titles, two Heineken Cups and the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

Spent two years with Leicester, winning a Premiership medal in 2011, before moving to London Irish. Made 62 appearances for the Exiles, also captaining them, before injury forced him to retire in 2016.

Captained England Saxons when they won the Churchill Cup in 2010.

While still playing for Irish, he began coaching at Ealing Trailfinders. During his two years as assistant coach, they won promotion to the Championship. Was also assistant coach for Samoa, in their 2015 game against New Zealand and then in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

On his retirement, he became Irish's Forwards Coach. He has just been named as Gloucester's new head coach.

 

EARLY SPORTING MEMORIES

I was born in Warrington, so maybe I should have been a rugby league player, but I left when I was two and I’ve never been back. My parents moved around various places in the north before my dad got a job in London. Shaun (Edwards) and I had several conversations about the relative merits of Warrington and Wigan.

I started playing rugby when I was about eleven or twelve. I’d played football, but my school, Wimbledon College, played rugby. I wasn’t too pleased, but soon took to it. I started as a back, because I was quite fast, but I filled out a bit and went into the back row. I was a lock by the time I went to John Fisher School (in Purley) in the sixth form and I scored a few tries. Paul Sackey had just left, but his brother was in my year. Sacks used to come back and show off his latest car. I tried to convince him that I’d broken his try-scoring record and he believed me. Then he checked it and found that I’d been winding him up.

Saracens were one of the few clubs that had an academy then, although nothing like today’s academies. After a couple of years, they offered me a contract, but I had a look around and decided that Wasps was the best place for me. I didn’t even visit the training ground or meet anybody. They just sent me a contract which I signed and sent back to them.

 

WASPS MEMORIES

I joined at the start of Nigel Melville’s last season, 01/02. Gats came in as an assistant in mid-season, then took over when Nigel went to Gloucester. Shaun started taking the fitness sessions and the intensity immediately ramped up. I think the first pre-season training camp in Poland took place that summer, but I can’t remember whether I went on it. Declan Kidney (London Irish Director of Rugby) went there once and he calls himself a Spala survivor. I went there eleven times and I even paid to go once. We had a week off and about eleven of us went. It cost about a thousand pounds a head!

It was pretty spartan, but I’m told it’s a bit more glamorous now. The food and accommodation weren’t up to much, but I understood what Gats and Shaun were trying to do. We were really beasted there, but it was a mental challenge as much as a physical one. Despite all that, I look back fondly on those trips.

My first-team debut was in an Anglo-French challenge against Stade Français. at the beginning of 03/4. I came off the bench and scored a charge-down try a couple of minutes later. It was an important score, late in the game and I left the ground on a high. The following week, I started in a friendly at Worcester and we got beaten up, so I went from hero to zero in six days.

There were so many world-class players at the club - real leaders with big egoes which had to be managed. Some teams have suffered from having to handle big egoes, but it worked at Wasps. Lawrence was the boss from the players’ point of view and we would always follow him. He talked the talk, but he also walked the walk. As a lock, I learnt so much from Simon Shaw. I used to feel that I did his hard work in training for him, but he always ended up being picked!

Gats wanted a strong second team to push the first team and the A team was as successful as the firsts. He’d often put senior players into the A team and promote youngsters. We had a lot of talented and ambitious players coming through and it always seemed to be Wasps and Leicester contesting the A League title.  Winning the final at Welford Road was a great experience.

The famous firsts against seconds game before the 07 Heineken Cup final was really competitive. Afterwards, the first team boys said it didn’t matter, but the A team lads said it did and kept reminding them who’d won! 

The 07/8 Heineken Cup was good for me. I ran in a couple of good tries at Llanelli and in the pool game against Munster at The Ricoh. The following season, we played Leinster at Twickenham. I thought I was in for a try, but I was tackled by Brian O’Driscoll and Malcolm O’Kelly just short of the line. They hit me so hard that it dislodged the ball, but luckily it went backwards and Serge Betsen gathered and went over for a try. Afterwards, everybody said it was a great lay-back, but I didn’t put them right! 

It’s hard to pick out a single outstanding memory, because Wasps was where I grew up in rugby and I was lucky to be there at a time when we had a good, young group of lads who were desperate to make it. We worked really hard, we had a genuine tight bond and there was a real unity in the squad. You could talk to guys who were ten, fifteen years older than you and they wouldn’t treat you as a kid. It was a great time to be at the club and the whole Wasps experience was brilliant.

 

INTO COACHING

I was rooming with Raph Ibanez on a European trip and he said he’d never seen anybody use their laptop so much before a game. I was calling lineouts by then and I knew how important it was to analyse the opposition. I realised there were better players than me, so it made sense to try to understand the game and give yourself an edge. As time went on, I did little bits of coaching here and there. I coached Ealing, while I was still playing at Irish, then one thing led to another. Coming through the Wasps set-up when I did, with those coaches and those players, taught me lessons which have really helped my coaching career.

Defences are much more organised than when I was playing and margins are so tight that one missed tackle can lose you a game. The breakdown has changed enormously since I retired. It’s a game within a game and some teams base their game on disrupting the opposition there. I get very frustrated with the maul. Teams work hard to get it going forwards and making a lot of ground, then it goes down and the opposition get the put-in. So many people come in at the side without being penalised. I don’t blame referees. The laws seem to change every year and it’s as hard for refs to adapt as it is for players.

As a coach, you have to keep adapting but you also have to stick to what you believe.

Tom Voyce

Truro-born Tom Voyce began his senior rugby career with Bath and won his first England cap at the age of 20, on the 2001 summer tour. Moved to Wasps ahead of the 2003/4 season. In six years with the club, made over 150 appearances as wing or full-back. Appeared in seven winning finals and scored over sixty tries. Won nine England caps. His great-uncle, also Tom Voyce, was a Gloucester and England legend in the 1920s, who went on to become RFU President

EARLY DAYS

I didn’t realise that I had a famous rugby name until I was about twelve, when I was reading a rugby history in the school library. Dad hadn’t pushed me into rugby, but I started playing minis when I was about nine. I scored a try with my first touch, which was fantastic, but the lines and cones were a bit confusing and everybody was shouting at me to put the ball down!

I was playing for Cornwall Under-15s when I was invited to go and train with Bath twice a week. I made my U-19s debut against Swansea at The Rec, when I was 16, and my senior debut at 19. It went really well and I won my first England cap a year later.  After a couple of great years, new management came in and decided they wanted a big winger, so I wasn’t offered a new contract. Gats signed me and my final Bath game was against Wasps in the 2003 Parker Pen Cup final. Martyn Wood was going in the opposite direction and after the game somebody took his bag from the Wasps bus and put it on the Bath one.

WASPS

My first Wasps game was a pre-season Anglo-French challenge match against Stade Français at Adams Park. Early on, I took a high ball well and made a good run. That gave me enormous confidence and it just went from there.

That was the double season and I still get goose pimples when I think about the Munster game in Dublin. Just before the bus arrived at our hotel, Gats got on the mic and said: “Everyone will tell you that you’re big guys and you’ll murder them. Don’t listen. Once it starts, they’ll be trying to rip your throats out!” After we’d checked in, I was in the lift with Simon Shaw and Trevor Leota. A couple of Irish guys got in and said exactly what Gats had predicted.

When we went ten points down, Lol got us behind the posts to tell us that we weren’t going to lose to these f*****s. It was so noisy that I had to lip-read what he was saying. I got a try, then made a run to set up Trevor’s winner. I shall never forget looking at the crowd and seeing a few sections of black in a sea of red.

The final against Toulouse, with Rob Howley’s try, was another memorable occasion. The following week was the Premiership final against Bath. The semi against Northampton had been very tight until we broke out and I beat Ben Cohen to go in for a try. It opened the floodgates and we eventually won easily. It probably sounds arrogant, but I always believed that I could produce something to turn a game,

I’ve never been so nervous as I was before the final. It was my old club and I was desperate to win. We just about hung on and I was delighted to make a rare scoring pass to send Stuart Abbott in for our try. The following year, we beat Leicester in the Premiership final and I got an early try after Lol’s big tackle made them spill the ball. We didn’t really move the ball much that day. We just made sure we got points when we were at their end and we kept making them play from deep. 

The other try I remember was the one right from the kick-off, against Quins. I love reminding Will Greenwood that he dropped the kick-off, the ball bounced straight to me and I scored between the posts. It was timed at 9.63 seconds, a Premiership record. That was broken a few years later, but I think I’d still hold it if I hadn’t had two guys hanging on to me!

I found it quite hard to fit in to our rush defence system. I liked to approach the game like chess, thinking about my next move. With our defence, you automatically charged up without thinking. It took some time for me to adapt, but my defensive game really did develop under Shaun.

We had some great characters in the team, but I particularly valued the back-room staff and the supporters. They boosted you and brought you back to normality when the team environment became too intense, particularly if we lost.

CURRENT INVOLVEMENT

After I retired, I attended one game and then stayed away. I’d made my contribution and was proud of what I’d achieved, but I recently played in a match in aid of Doddie Weir.

I watch European games and internationals, but I can’t remember when I last watched a Premiership game, apart from semis and finals.

The fitness and athleticism are now on a different level, but I think the game has been simplified. Some teams still use quick ball to create space, but it’s mainly up-down, with everybody staying in their zones. It’s getting more like rugby league.

For me, the biggest change is off the field. The fame and rewards are taking it closer to football, with a sense of entitlement, which isn’t a good thing. Eddie Jones came and gave a talk to Investec, where I work. He said it was hard to make modern players care about history. For the game to flourish, players must know and respect what’s gone before. They can’t just stay in their own bubble. Recently, it was encouraging to see how much a first cap meant to some young players. One said he was playing with his dream team.

Richard Birkett

A lock and occasional back-row forward, Richard Birkett spent 14 seasons with Wasps, making over 250 first-team appearances. He appeared in four victorious Premiership finals, starting in three consecutive finals from 2003 to 2005 and coming off the bench in 2008. Birkett also started the 2003 Parker Pen Challenge Cup, 2004 Heineken Cup and 2006 Anglo-Welsh Cup finals.

He is now Performance Director of Rugby at Reigate Grammar School.

EARLY DAYS

I was sport mad at school. I played everything. I played minis and youth rugby at Rosslyn Park and then Richmond, before I went to Millfield. Basketball was my main sport, but Millfield were very big on rugby. I regarded myself as a number-eight, but they put me in the second- row. I wasn’t particularly happy, but we trained so often that it transformed my rugby and I got into England Under 18s. Bath Rugby and Wasps were interested in signing me but I wanted to go to university and was considering Bath or Brunel. I’d been away for a year, so I chose Brunel and joined Wasps. They were still training at Sudbury, which was pretty rustic!

I made my first-team debut at the beginning of the 1999/2000 season. I came off the bench against Saracens and only lasted a few minutes before Richard Hill tackled me and I snapped my cruciate. I missed the whole season. For a 20-year-old it seemed devastating but it probably helped me in the long run. I wasn’t that big for a lock - only about 100 kg - and my rehab time enabled me to bulk up. I also worked as Peter Scrivener’s assistant press officer, which was interesting!

When Gats (Warren Gatland) came in, he gave me my chance and I hardly missed a game.
He really shook things up when he brought in Craig White as Head of Strength & Conditioning. I shall never forget that first trip to Spala in Poland. It was absolutely savage. None of us had ever experienced anything like it. We were there for two weeks and we had one day off, when we went to Auschwitz - not exactly the break you want!

They’d told us they were going to break us, then build us up again, and that’s exactly what they did. We were much stronger and fitter than anybody else and we knew we could rely on our fitness to get us through close games, particularly in the last quarter. Shaun Edwards was always big on how long the ball was in play. In those days, it was around 30 or 31 minutes. We were always looking to push that to 35 or 36 to take advantage of our fitness.

We thrashed Gloucester 39-3 in the Premiership final that season. We just tore into them from the start. After only a couple of minutes, Stuart Abbott cut them open and Josh Lewsey scored a try. It was unbelievably hot - 40-odd degrees pitchside - but we’d been training in bin bags for several weeks. At half-time, our strength and conditioning team had bins full of iced water, fans - everything to cool us down.

That season started the golden era, when we won eight finals in six years. The squad didn’t change much and we were pretty lucky with injuries, but we just had that belief. That showed when we beat Bath in the Premiership final, six days after winning the Heineken Cup final against Toulouse. It wasn’t a great game, and we didn’t play that well, but we just had the confidence to come through. Also, we were a bunch of mates and the camaraderie played a big part.

There were so many outstanding games in that era. That Gloucester final is right up there but the Heineken Cup semi against Munster Rugby at Lansdowne Road was incredible. The whole weekend was just mind-blowing. I’d missed the game in Perpignan. Martin Purdy played. It was an absolute battle, so I think I had a lucky escape! At the time, I don’t think we realised how great that period was, but looking back on it now, you appreciate that it was really special.

Funnily enough, one of my other outstanding memories is of beating Leicester Tigers in the second leg of the A League final at Welford Road. The first-team hadn’t won there for years, so that was a great moment. I think that was the year when the seconds beat the firsts in a practice game ahead of the Heineken Cup final, again against Leicester. The A League final team had people like James Haskell, George Skivington, John Hart. I think Tim Payne might also have been playing.

I’ll never be allowed to forget the Heineken Cup game against Stade Français, at Loftus Road, when I deflected a long-range penalty by Diego Dominguez over the bar. I remain adamant that it was going over anyway and I didn’t help it on its way. I’d always thought that we’d drawn the game, but I’ve just been told that we lost (31-28) so I now feel even worse about it -
so thanks Barney! The following morning, my Dad rang me and said: ‘You’re in the papers!’ I went out and bought a copy of The Sun I think it was. Sure enough, there was a photo of my deflection, under the headline: “WHAT A SILLY BIRK”. Peter Scrivener still calls me Silly Birks. Then, it was quite common to lift locks to try to stop kicks going over, but you don’t see it now. Maybe people saw what happened to me and decided that it wasn’t worth it!

Unfortunately, injury forced me to retire earlier than planned. I ended up on 257 first-team appearances and I’m very proud of the shirt they presented to me, when I reached 250.

CURRENT INVOLVEMENT

The game has changed for the better since I played. Fitness and skill levels are much higher, particularly in the front-five. The game’s faster and the ball’s in play for longer. We sometimes had games where it was in play for around 40 minutes and everybody was shattered, but now 40 minutes and more is standard. There are now so many big collisions and it’s much more exciting, but there are more injuries. That brings its own problems in a job like mine, when you’re keen to have as many boys and girls playing as possible. Parents are understandably concerned to see so many injuries and that filters through to kids, who don’t want to play rugby. In reality, it’s only the top level that has the massive collisions and high injury rates. I don’t think injury levels in the amateur game are significantly higher than in other sports.

I’m in my fifth year at Reigate Grammar School. We teach our players very similar techniques and skills to those they see in the professional game. We also do some analysis, but more of ourselves than opposition teams. We keep analysis sessions short, as rugby is only part of the kids’ schedule and they have limited time and attention spans. We don’t overload them with stats. We want to win, but the main reason why they’re playing is because they enjoy it. Our aim isn’t to produce future pros and internationals. It’s to allow them to understand and enjoy the game and to find their own level. If they then decide that they want to go on and play at university, or with a club, we’ve done our job.

GISELLE MATHER

Giselle Mather, Wasps' Ladies Director of Rugby since 2016, has been described as a 'trailblazer'. She was the first woman to achieve the RFU's Level 4 coaching award and the first female coach to be employed by a Premiership club.

In a highly successful playing career, she won 34 England caps, the majority as fly-half. She was a World Cup winner in 1994 and also enjoyed two Grand Slams. On the club front, she won multiple honours with Wasps.

On retirement, she went into coaching and took charge of Wasps Ladies in 2001. She led them to back-to-back Premiership titles in 2003 and 2004. She's also a former Backs Coach of the England Women’s Senior team and coached the England U20 Women to three seasons unbeaten and back-to-back Nations Cup Titles.

In the men's game, she coached Teddington RFC to a phenomenal unbeaten run of 62 matches, which encompassed four promotions and two Twickenham cup finals. She joined London Irish in 2005 and spent ten years there, beginning as a coach with their Elite Players Development Groups, then becoming their AASE manager.

In 2017, she was given the honour of coaching the first ever Barbarians Women side.

 

EARLY SPORTING MEMORIES

 Sport really took off for me when I started playing netball, as a nine-year-old. We had a very strong school team and a very obsessive PE teacher. She had us training before school, during the lunch break and three times a week after school.  We were really good and won everything that was going. For my tenth birthday, my dad took us to a football international at Wembley - England v Brazil. When I went into the stadium and saw that huge crowd, I decided that I wanted to play for my country.

I played all sorts of sports, but I only started playing rugby at university (Exeter - the old St. Luke’s). My other half played for a senior club in Wales and he suggested I give it a go. I went to Exeter Ladies, but it didn’t work out. The following year, I was at home at a party and there were some people there from Teddington RFC, who'd just started a ladies' team. Someone mentioned that I’d tried rugby and the following morning, my phone kept ringing, so I said I’d go along.

I was playing hockey at university on Saturdays. Then, on Sunday, I’d get the train to London to play for Teddington and go back that evening. Things went well and I joined Richmond, because people told me I needed to play at a higher level. I got into the England squad, and sat on the bench eleven times before I won my first cap (in 1990) - in those days, you could only replace injured players.

 

MOVE TO WASPS

Karen Almond was first choice Wasps and England fly-half and I got my first cap because they wanted to see how I’d go, if she was injured. My second cap was in the 1991 World Cup final, against the USA. I came off the bench when our full-back Jane Mitchell was injured.

When Karen decided to emigrate, people from Wasps kept telling me I should come and join them. I discussed it with my dad, who’d played for Wasps. He said it was up to me to decide what was best for me. So. I joined Wasps and had six very happy years.

It was a golden era, with plenty of silverware and some great players.  Claire Vyvyan, Sue Day, Sandy Ewing, Cheryl Stennett among others. Paula George was a fabulous player, who’s my best mate, and godmother to my daughter. One season, we reached the cup final, which was going to be televised.  She decided to have her hair done, with a wasp showing at the back of her head. It went horribly, horribly wrong, so she went to another hairdresser, who only made it worse. She turned up for the game with her usual beanie cap on. When it was time for the team photo, we said that she had to take the beanie off. She didn’t want to, but somebody pulled it off. We were stunned and she was mortified.

Linda Uttley was another great player and larger-than-life character. I brought her from Teddington to Wasps. I’ll never forget a time when she played, wearing plaited hair extensions, which all came off during the game. At the end, she insisted that we all crawled around the pitch looking for them, because they’d cost her a fortune.

I took time off to start a family. Then, after the 1998 World Cup, I retired from international rugby and went back to Teddington for one year, as I’d always promised them, I’d end my career there

One of my fondest memories is of the night when Wasps Ladies were invited to a quinquennial dinner for the first time. We were on a couple of tables right at the back, but it was just nice to be there! When the official stuff was finished, the men’s team came up and said: “You’re not going home. You’re coming out with us!”

They led us outside, where a fleet of limos was waiting. We were taken to some club in the West End and stayed there until about three in the morning. It meant a lot to us, but it was the way the club was.  Wasps were pioneers of the women’s game, so we were always encouraged and treated as equals.

 

COACHING

I came back to coach Wasps Ladies, then spent several years coaching the London Irish academy boys. I became DOR for Wasps Ladies nearly four years ago. Although they were always around the bottom of the league, I knew that they had enormous potential, but there was no support system around them to bring it out. Since the Tyrells Premier 15s began, we've brought in strength and conditioning, analysts, proper medical support and proper coaching.  These players have been given the opportunity to be who they can be. They’re working really hard, they have a real passion for the game and now their potential is being realised.

There are still people who dismiss women’s rugby and say that any half-decent team of schoolboys could beat the Red Roses. Obviously, the women will never have the physicality of the men, but they can match them on fitness, skill, vision and tactical awareness. If people come to one of our games and point out things they think could be better, that’s great. If they just want to dismiss us, it doesn’t bother me. When I was playing, I heard every insult you could imagine, so it’s water off a duck’s back.

I love sevens and I’m excited by the new Rugby X, but fifteen-a-side is the best form of rugby. It could be made even better. If a line-out is uncontested, why stop play for a scrum if the throw-in is slightly crooked? I worry about the breakdown in its current form - it's dangerous. I also think that too many decisions are based on interpretation. We spend far too much time in every game trying to work out what the referee wants.

My squad has been up to Broadstreet and trained with the Wasps academy.  We have the same shirt sponsors as the men and the netball team and we have close links to the Wasps Legends, who keep us very involved in everything they do.  There may be a geographical gap between Acton and Coventry, but Derek Richardson is enormously supportive and playing at the Ricoh is one of the many things which make us feel part of the Wasps family.

Mark Rigby

Mark Rigby joined Wasps in 1981 and went on to make over 150 first-team appearances in the back-row, captaining the Club in 1991/92.

After the disappointment of playing in two losing cup finals against Bath Rugby in 1985/86 and 1986/87, he was part of the side which won the Courage League in 1989/90.

He played for Middlesex in the county championship and London and The Southeast in the divisional championship. After retiring from senior rugby, he also represented both England and the Lions at the annual Bermuda World Rugby Classic.

After serving as Executive Chairman and Chairman of Wasps, he became President in 2015.

EARLY DAYS

My dad was a keen sportsman. Cricket and football were his great loves. I was a mad Chelsea fan and I remember dad taking me to the 1970 Cup Final against Leeds United, then letting me stay up late to watch the replay (Chelsea won!).

I first played rugby when I went to Felsted School, aged 13. I took to it like a duck to water, particularly to the physical side, and ended up in the first-team. My Head of Rugby wrote a letter of recommendation to Alan Black at Wasps. I went along to Sudbury one Saturday and found Blacky. He read the letter and said: “You’d better get changed.”

I took to it like a duck to water, particularly to the physical side, and ended up in the first-team. My Head of Rugby wrote a letter of recommendation to Alan Black at Wasps. I went along to Sudbury one Saturday and found Blacky. He read the letter and said: “You’d better get changed.”

 

WASPS MEMORIES

My first game was for the fourth-team. When dad asked me about it, all I talked about was sitting between Roger Uttley and Mark Taylor in the old- fashioned bath at Sudbury and borrowing their soap.

After I got into the first-team, I asked Mark Taylor what I could do to improve my game. He said he’d arrange for me to go over to New Zealand and spend our summer months playing for Hawkes Bay. Peter Winterbottom had been there the previous season, so it was a hard act to follow!

There was no huge difference in standard between the rugby played here and what I experienced there. The big difference was the attitude and approach. They trained as they expected to play, with everything focused on winning, by fair means or foul.

I remember playing in a club cup final and one of the opposition stamped on my head. I had to go to hospital for stitches, but a few hours later, we were sharing beers like old friends, so the off-field spirit was just like here.

There was no hiding place there. I remember going to the supermarket a couple of days after losing a game and being berated by the check- out lady, over my blindside defence.

Wasps were experiencing a renaissance by then. In the 1970s we regularly lost by cricket scores, but then Peter Yarranton set up the connection with Cambridge University and we had a conveyor belt of wonderful Light Blue backs. Never any forwards - we thought they were a bit powder-puff for us! We were seen as blue-collar and our forwards had a reputation for being hard.

We reached our first cup final in 1986 against Bath Rugby. We started superbly and were 13-0 up in no time, but Nick Stringer decided to give them some backchat when he was taking a conversion. Not a good idea, as it really riled them and they came back strongly to eventually win 25-17.

A year later we played them in the final again.
We were leading 12-4 (four-point try), with eight minutes to go. We’d been dominating the scrums, but for some reason Fred Howard decided to ping us for collapsing a defensive scrum. Bath kicked the penalty, then scored a couple of tries and we lost 19-12.

Those defeats really hurt and we took that pain into the new Courage League, which began the following season. People say that we only ever played friendlies before the league began. I can assure them that there were no friendlies in the West Country, or in Wales. Friday night at The Gnoll in Neath was as unfriendly as it gets.

We were well coached by Rob Smith and were there or thereabouts for the first two years of the league, before we won it on the final day of the 1989/90 season. We beat Saracens at Sudbury, then had to wait for the Gloucester result. They lost at Nottingham and we were champions.

That team had been through a lot together, so a great night followed. I think I woke up at home the following morning, but I was in a bad way. Rob Andrew, Steve Bates, Mark Bailey, Jeff Probyn and Paul Rendall all had to attend an England session on the Sunday. They were meant to turn up on Saturday night, but didn’t make it. Roger Uttley, who was England coach at the time, probably gave them a bit of leeway.

We arranged a challenge match against the French champions, Racing Club. It was played at Sudbury and we beat them. It was very lively and the referee seemed to take the view that if we wanted a battle, he’d just let us get on with it. They had players like Franck Mesnel, Jean- Baptiste Lafond and Denis Charvet. They were all far too good-looking and worked very hard at getting to know our wives and girlfriends.

I ended up as Club captain and one of my attributes was a readiness to help the referee. Lawrence Dallaglio made his debut under my captaincy and I like to think that I taught him a lot in that particular area.

I packed up a couple of years before professionalism and went back to my old local club, Harrow. I played for England Classicals, then the Lions Classicals, in the Bermuda World Classic.

One year, the Lions played New Zealand in the final. We responded to the haka with the macarena. It was the idea of the Wales winger Glen Webbe, and the New Zealanders went berserk - but we beat them!

Had professionalism arrived earlier, I would have loved to focus on rugby and concentrate on becoming the best player I could possibly be, but I had a young family and was building a career. Also, I think I would have missed having more of a life outside the game.

The great thing about those days was that we had such a mix of people. Estate agents, surveyors, builders, plumbers, teachers, jewellers, scrap metal dealers. The banter was brutal and brilliant.

I’m very proud to still be a part of Wasps, nearly 40 years on. When I stopped playing, I went on to the committee, then the board. Now I’m President and can still play a role, which makes me extremely proud.

MODERN GAME

I’m glad that the cheap shots and thuggery that were commonplace when I was playing have gone. The game is much better to watch. I support the measures taken to address concern over high tackles and the consequences of concussion. The World Cup showed that players can get the message and adjust their techniques. There were plenty of cards early on, but fewer and fewer high tackles as the tournament progressed.

The use of replacements needs reviewing. It undermines rugby’s attritional nature. You’d work on your opposition, then reap the rewards of wearing them down. With almost an entire new pack coming on for half an hour or so, that’s gone. You also have to think of the effect on players who aren’t replaced. When they’re tiring, they’re suddenly faced by big, strong men who are completely fresh. I’d also like to see rucking come back. With more forwards in the breakdown, there’s more space for backs to exploit.

The fundamentals of the game don’t change. Win it up front, create a platform and cross the gainline.

Will Green

Tighthead-prop Will Green joined Wasps in 1992 as an 18-year-old schoolboy. He made his first-team debut three years later and appeared over 250 times before joining Leinster in 2005. A regular in the side which won the Courage League in 1996/97, he also played in seven winning finals and won four England caps.

EARLY DAYS

I loved all sports and played hockey, cricket and rugby for my school, Eastbourne College. One of our big local rivals was Brighton College, Alex King’s alma mater. I love reminding him of the time I caught him at short leg, after he edged into my stomach and it stuck. He was not pleased!

I played England Schools rugby and Geoff Strange, who managed Wasps Colts and Under 21s, recruited half the team, including myself.

My first Colts game was against Cardiff. Welsh hard men liked giving soft Home Counties types a rough time, which soon toughened us up! Geoff’s recruits were the heart of a very successful Colts team – Nick Greenstock, Andy Gomarsall, Darren Molloy, Paul Volley, Jonny Ufton, Dugald Macer, Lawrence Dallaglio.

 

WASPS MEMORIES

A couple of months after I left university, the game went professional. In the early days of professionalism, when we were still at Sudbury, conditions were pretty shambolic.

Although it was really a bit of
a dump, it was our dump but it kept our feet firmly on the ground and helped build a “them and us” mentality. In the year after it was sold, we trained in about ten different places.

When we were at Bisham Abbey, the physio had to put his bench up in the corridor. But we kept that core of players together which led to some fun times. Moving to Twyford Avenue finally gave us our own base again.

Winning the league in the first fully professional year was an amazing experience which sent a strong message to Rob Andrew and the others who’d gone to Newcastle.

We felt that a lot of the youngsters had been slightly suppressed by the old guard. We were unleashed on to the league and we pulled it off. We had some great stalwarts like Matt Greenwood and Gareth Rees and it was a team with  a lot of mismatches, but we won it.

Our first game at Loftus Road against Saracens, was a great occasion. I hadn’t played at Sale, a week earlier, but I  just remember the quality of the pitch compared to the previous week. We played some tremendous rugby that day and completely blew them away. It really set the tone for Loftus Road that season. It was a postage stamp-sized pitch, which really flummoxed some visiting teams. We hardly lost there that year.

One of my favourite memories is of scoring a try deep into injury time, to snatch a win at Kingsholm. The Shed went ballistic. After the game, I was interviewed on the pitch by Sky and somebody punched me in the back!

The double year of 2003/04, our Heineken Cup pool decider in Perpignan, was the most brutal game I’ve ever played in, but we knew we could take whatever they threw at us.

The moment when Lawrence got us together behind the posts at Lansdowne Road, after we’d gone ten points down in the semi against Munster, remains a blur. But I think he just told us that we were still in the game.

We were dominating it, and we let them in. We couldn’t believe we were losing by ten points. You know in a game whether you’re beating someone. Regardless of the score, you know whether you’ve got one over the opposition. We knew that we had. We knew they were pretty fragile. We just had the belief that it would come good.

It also comes back to wanting to prove people wrong. A lot of people felt we couldn’t do it over there. It may just have come from those chippy lads up at Sudbury.

I don’t know how we beat Toulouse in the final. If it had gone to extra-time, I’m sure we would have lost. I’m very proud of my tackle count of 18 that day - more than in
my previous five games put together. In some games, I made none! Six days later, our belief got us through in the Premiership final against Bath Rugby.

As well as the belief, our fitness was a major weapon. Those camps in Poland were really tough. The cryotherapy chamber sessions weren’t actually too bad. You knew that you were only in there for a couple of minutes, stomping around with your mates in the freezing cold. It was ice baths which really hurt. The pain, as your ankles began to go numb, was absolutely horrendous.

My final game for Wasps was the 2005 Premiership final against Leicester Tigers. I was up against Graham Rowntree. We’d faced each other many times and there was great mutual respect.

When a scrum went down, he kneed me, but I just belted him back and that was the end of
it! It was great to leave on a high and to close that particular chapter. What better way to end my time at Wasps?

THOUGHTS ON MODERN GAME

I loved being a professional player but I think the last few amateur years were a golden era for my generation. There was more to life than just rugby. Young players today have to make a massive commitment to the game at such an early age and they know that one injury could end their career. It’s such a power game now and defences are unbelievable. The athleticism of all the players is remarkable but it’s not really a game for all sizes any more - at least, not at the highest level. It’s absolutely brutal and attritional.

The World Cup showed again that the biggest challenge for the game is narrowing the gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries. It wasn’t just the gulf in quality, it’s just dangerous for highly-paid, finely-tuned professionals to play against amateurs.

I still enjoy watching rugby, but my only direct involvement is a little bit of coaching at my son’s school. I find it rewarding but I wouldn’t want to do it week in, week out. It’s great to be part of Wasps Legends.

Saracens tried to get Peter Scrivener before he joined Wasps. If they’d succeeded, we wouldn’t have had to put up with him for all those years, but the Legends would never have happened, so every dark cloud has a silver lining!

Peter Scrivener

Peter Scrivener joined Wasps as an 18-year-old in 1992. A powerful number-eight, equally at homeas a lock or flanker, he spent 12 years at the Club. He was part of the squad which won the 1996/97 Courage League and also appeared in two winning cup finals, as well as the 2003 Parker Pen Challenge Cup and Zurich Premiership finals.

EARLY DAYS

My school (Coopers in Essex)was very sporty. I did most sports at county level or beyond including swimming, athletics, basketball, cricket and football, but I concentrated on rugby after I got into a fantastic England Under 18s schools team alongside players like Nick Greenstock, Andy Gomarsall, Jonny Ufton, Martin Corry, Gareth Archer, Tim Stimpson, Mark Denney and John James Abadom.

Growing up in Essex I should have gone to Saracens but Geoff Strange at Wasps was extremely persistent and rang me every single day for about two months, telling me to join Wasps! Sudbury was a long round trip from home, but after my first training session I found another home!

WASPS MEMORIES

At my first training session I was thrown in at the deep end with the first-team and to my surprise I was selected on their traditional pre-season camp in St Jean-de-Luz. I was only 18 and surrounded by my heroes, but I was immediately initiated into the back-row union, with guys like Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Greenwood, Dean Ryan, Chris Wilkins and Buster White. Dangerous company - and they still are. A lot of my old England Schools teammates also joined Wasps and phenomenal Under 21 team, which developed into a successful first-team. We enjoyed ourselves on the field and even more off it!

Tragedy hit as my mum died when I was 21 but my Wasps family was with me during that tough time. I remember arriving for the funeral and wondering why so many people were outside
the church. When we went in, we realised that practically everybody from Wasps was already inside. Two days later, we had a game at Sudbury. I went into the dressing room and Richard Kinsey gave me a big hug and said: “You’re with me today... all day.” We of course won and I’ll never forget the kindness the whole club showed my family at that time.

When the game went professional it was an incredibly exciting time for a 21-year-old straight out of uni on £25k and a £1250 win bonus! In those days we won a lot of games and we really had fun as we were all single! Wasps changed gears when Inga Tuigamala arrived at the Club and that for me was when it really went pro. He came in and we all just looked at him. Inga was on a different level and he just changed our game and training ethos.

We won the Courage League in 1996/97 then the cup in 1998/99 and 1999/2000. There were so many great games that it’s hard to pick any out, but the 1999 final win over Newcastle Falcons is a very special memory as that day our back- row dominated completely. Our Heineken Cup game in Bourgoin also stands out. It was a really partisan atmosphere, there were a few hundred Wasps supporters there and they created the ‘Allez’ chant. We won, then had a great night in the town. The locals gave us a fantastic welcome wherever we went, which is what rugby is all about. A couple of years later, Nigel Melville moved on and Warren Gatland took over. He was and still is a brilliant man manager, an incredible individual. He brought in Craig White, who was, and probably still is, one of the best fitness coaches in the world. There was also Paul Stridgeon, aka Bobby. He contributed so much to the Club both on and off the field. He created the Bobby Cup which is still one of the funniest things ever created at Wasps!

And then there was Shaun Edwards... a LEGEND of Rugby League. I remember lining up against an incredible Wigan team at the Middlesex 7s. Quinnell, Farrell, Tuigamala, Connolly, Robinson, Offiah, Radlinski and Shaun. The Lol (as he liked to be called) told us we had to “smash Edwards”. Right from the kick-off, I hit him with a very, very late tackle. He spent the rest of the half chasing me and I learnt the northern language very quickly.

I infamously held the record for Wasps’ fastest substitution – 26 minutes, due to three errors. It became a running joke as Paul Sampson then took over, when he lasted two minutes, but Oogie (Ayoola Erinle) holds the record. He came off the bench, made three mistakes in 30 seconds, and was immediately replaced!

People still remind me of the Heineken Cup game against Llanelli at Loftus Road, when I showed electrifying pace to chase Alex King’s kick to the corner, then produced a staggering piece of skill to gather and score. I raised my arms and started blowing kisses at the stand. Then I looked up and realised that the stand was empty! Classic!

Unfortunately, injuries really liked me and over a 12-year career I was injured for five years. In 1998 I was the highest-paid player in the world but unfortunately it was per minute! While I was in rehab, I got involved in other areas, and filled in as press officer for a while. When it was reported that we were moving to Wycombe, a journalist rang asking whether the rumours were true. I just said: “It’s a secret!” He then rang Nigel Melville, asking who ‘the idiot in the press office’ was! I said Richard Birkett as he was my assistant idiot!

"There were so many great games that it’s hard to pick any out, but the 1999 final win over Newcastle Falcons is a very special memory as that day our back- row dominated completely"

CURRENT INVOLVEMENT

My big worry about the game today is that not enough is done to help players when they retire. One minute they’re earning big money and being looked after. Then they’re starting at the bottom again and having to look after themselves. I’ve helped numerous players find new careers but they have to remember the fantasy lifestyle can end with one tackle! They need to help themselves as well and make the most of their contacts whilst playing.

I’d built up a lot of contacts during my career and when I retired, people reached out to help, for which I am very grateful, and I went straight into a job in sports ticketing. In 2005, I came back to Wasps as Commercial Director which was a dream job. I loved it, the players and the fans.

That’s when we started the Past Players Network to bring the old boys back into the Club but this has grown into the Wasps Legends Charitable Foundation. It started with a few exhibition games but now we have a charity lunch in the city called the Long Lunch, a marque golf event in La Manga which in five years will raise £500k and more events will follow.

We have created a “Friends of the Legends” Membership which we would like every fan to join as there are some incredible benefits but more importantly you become part of our family which helps thousands of individuals.

Once a Wasp Always a Wasp.

www.waspslegends.co.uk

Andy Gomarsall

Scrum-half Andy Gomarsall joined Wasps in 1993 and made his senior debut a year later. He spent six years at the Club and was part of the team which won the Courage League in 1996/97 and the Tetley’s Bitter Cup final in 1999. Gomarsall made his England debut in 1996 and went on to win 35 caps. He played in two World Cups, making two appearances in the victorious campaign of 2003 and six, including the final, in 2007.

STARTING OUT

It was my dad’s love and enthusiasm
for the game which got me started. He and a couple of other fathers set up
Bicester Minis. On our first Sunday, there were only five of us and we couldn’t even raise a team. Now, there are over 500 kids every week. James Forrester (Gloucester Rugby and England) and Jon Goodridge (Gloucester, Leeds Carnegie and Bristol Rugby) also started there, and their dads both helped.

Dad sent me to Bedford School, because there was a rugby master there who saw something in me. I loved it there and the former England captain and RFU President Budge Rogers, who was an Old Bedfordian, saw me play and started putting the word around. Wasps picked up on it and that’s how I ended up there.

WASPS MEMORIES

I played for England Schools and Colts and got to know the likes of Nick Greenstock, Peter Scrivener, Jonny Ufton and Jonny Abadom. They were all going to Wasps, so I had some mates who were already playing a great standard of rugby. Then Chris Braithwaite, Dugald Macer and Will Green (dangerous company) all persuaded me to join them at Oxford Brookes, where I spent four years.

Just after leaving school, I went on a Wasps Under21s tour to Canada. We arrived in Toronto the day before my 19th birthday and did what all touring rugby teams did. We went to a bar to acclimatise. When I came out of the bar, I was immediately arrested for ‘under-age drinking’. I was put in a squad car, with the rest of the team waving me goodbye. I was really worried and the car drove around for several minutes before returning to the bar, where the team were still standing, cheering and clapping. It had all been a hoax. They’d completely stitched me up. After that, I knew Wasps was the club for me.

There were a few injuries, so I soon found myself in the first-team squad. On my first away trip, I sat next to Jeff Probyn on the bus, and he looked after me. There were great players like Nick Popplewell and Kevin Dunn. Buster White worked for Nike, who sponsored me, so he became my kit manager. We also had Dean Ryan, Steve Bates, Damian Hopley and Alan Buzza, so young players really were learning from the best.

Lawrence Dallaglio and I sat on the bench a lot. In those days, there were only three replacements - a hooker, a scrum-half and a back.

Lawrence covered all the outside- backs, as well as the back-row.

When Rob Andrew went to Newcastle Falcons, afterthe game turned professional, Steve Bates went with him, so that was my big chance. I soon played for the Barbarians alongside Neil Back and I remember being amazed by his level of fitness, even in the amateur days, so I knew that this was a big step up.

Steve Bates had never helped me, when I was starting. It was Chris Wright - the player, not the owner - who went out of his way for me and I always made sure that I did all I could to

help young players, throughout my career. At Wasps, there was great competition between myself, Martyn Wood and Mike Friday. In a situation like that, you don’t always see eye-to-eye, but it was healthy competition and we are all very good friends.

Rob Henderson was one of the great characters. He knew what
it meant to be a Wasp, both on
and off the field and he took the off-field antics to another level. We thought he was destined to become a publican, as he spent so much time in the pub!

We had some great times and the first professional year was very exciting. With the move to Loftus Road, we felt like rock stars, even though it was half-empty. I remember Peter Scrivener scoring under the posts and celebrating to an empty stand. When Nigel Melville signed Inga Tuigamala, it was a huge eye-opener for us. We thought we were professional, but Inga showed us what real professionalism was.

Winning the league in 1997 was amazing and
we then reached two cup finals, losing in 1998 and winning in 1999, but one of my outstanding memories was of that Heineken Cup game against Toulouse, when we beat them 77-17. It was a day when everything we touched turned to gold. Every player shone and we just made them look ordinary. It’s just a shame that it was in a dead rubber, rather than in a final.

 

CURRENT INVOLVEMENT

I remain very involved with Wasps Legends, although we don’t play any more. We’re at an age where the risk of injury is higher, so we concentrate on fundraising. It’s like mini tours without the rugby and Scrivs has arranged some amazing trips to Guernsey, Jersey, Sark and the Isle of Man.

The modern game is great to watch, although I fear for player safety, as it has become so physical. I was a co-commentator on the last two World Cups, but my business commitments mean that I don’t have the time any more. I offer support and help to the RPA, with insight on where I’ve been and where I am now, in business.

I loved what the RFU did when they announced the World Cup squad. They put together a video, which showed the history of every player and they’d all started out in the amateur game. I was very fortunate to have played as an amateur and a professional and it’s important that everybody has their roots in the amateur game. That ensures that the culture, the traditions and values of rugby will continue to thrive.

Paul Sackey

RUGBY CAREER

I started rugby quite late, around 13 or 14. I played football, but then I was sent to a rugby-playing school, John Fisher, in Purley. I skipped rugby but all my mates played. When they came to my house, my dad wasn’t too pleased to hear I wasn’t playing, so I gave in. I started at six, then eight, but I hated it because I kept getting battered. Then I went along the backline and ended up on the wing.

When I was about 16, I was playing for a junior team on the next pitch to the first-team. One of their wingers got injured and I got called in to replace him. I scored two tries and that was it. That season, we won the National Schools 7s and I won man-of-the-tournament. Lawrence Dallaglio presented the prizes, but I had no idea who he was. After that, I started supporting Wasps. An agent got in touch - Maria Pedro, Phil Keith-Roach’s wife - and I ended up at Wasps, training with the first- team and playing for the seconds.

Andy Gomarsall, my mentor, was about to join Bedford Blues. He suggested that I should go there, because there were so many wingers at Wasps that it would take me ages to get a chance. I had a season there but they were relegated. I joined London Irish, where I had the most fun of my life.

Although I loved Wasps, I hated playing against them, but my best ever try was for Bedford Blues against Wasps, at Loftus Road. I skinned Josh, Kenny and Shane Roiser. I’d love to see it again but I can’t find any film of it.

WASPS MEMORIES

Early in the 2004/05 season, I’d decided to leave Irish. I’d always wanted to go back to Wasps and I eventually made the move in March 2005. Two months later, we were in the Premiership final against Leicester Tigers.

They had two giant wingers, Alessana Tuilagi and Seru Rabeni, who’d been slaughtering everybody all season. Tom Voyce and I were facing them. Shaun Edwards told us that they’d been taking the mickey all season, but he’d buy us the best champagne and best cigars we’d ever seen if we stopped them from scoring. They didn’t get a sniff, we won easily and Voycey and I took Shaun up on his promise!

When I came back to Wasps, I had a reputation as an attacker, but it was Shaun who turned me into an effective defender. Irish had used the same system, just not quite as well. It only needed a few tweaks from Shaun and I found it fairly easy to adapt.

A lot of people still talk about a try I scored against Clermont Auvergne in a Heineken Cup game at Adams Park. I finished off a move which Danny Cipriani started in his own 22. Cips was only 20 and it was his first season as first-choice fly-half. It was incredible that he could start a move like that against a team like Clermont. I think a lot of that confidence came from working with Margo Wells, his sprint coach.

I remember a game against Gloucester Rugby, when we were 20-30 points down, well into the second-half. While we were behind the posts for a kick, Lawrence got us together and said: “We’re giving them too many easy points, just calm down and do your job and we’ll win.” He was right and we did win. That was the sort of confidence and belief we had. I always trusted everybody on the pitch to do their job, which made it easy for me to do mine. I knew that if we needed to win, we would. There was never any doubt in my mind. Gats (Warren Gatland) and Shaun gave us that belief and Geech (Sir Ian McGeechan) kept it going.

I think I’ve had the best coaches in the world. As well as Gats, Shaun and Geech, I had Mike Catt and Brendan Venter at Irish and they both taught me so much.

I’m proud of the fact that I was the first Wasp to score at The Ricoh in the 2007 Heineken Cup semi-final against Northampton Saints. I actually got two tries, but the first gave me a permanent place in the history books.

MODERN RUGBY

The game is very entertaining to watch but defences are much tighter. I knew I could always target a forward and beat him easily, but it’s much harder now. You have to go through so many phases to set up an opportunity, but even then there’s no easy target. Forwards are now much more skilful and athletic and you can’t take it for granted that you’ll skin them.

People say the game’s become more physical, but it was more brutal when I played. There were flying arms all over the place and forwards expected to end the game with stud marks all over their backs.

LIFE AFTER RUGBY

I recently worked with the Wasps Community Team since the move to The Ricoh and I loved it. Wasps is an amazing club which helped me to grow as a person. I love going out and telling people how fantastic Wasps are. They have great people and they are there to be part of the community and to help it grow.