In a continuation of David Challis’ series looking at English Rugby’s greatest club sides, he takes a look back at the great Wasps side of the mid-2000s. Following on from the dynasty that Leicester Tigers built before the London-based side took English rugby to new heights.
Spearheaded by the great Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards from the coaching box, Wasps’ success was built on their rock-like defence. This coupled with a sprinkling of overseas stardust, Wasps were able to take advantage of the national team’s slump with golden years both in England and in Europe.
Cup Success Paved the Way
Before Gatland and Edwards came into the Wasps set up the squad assembled was still a force to be reckoned with. Their Tetley’s Bitter cup successes in 1999 and 2000 attest to this. They reveal something deeper about this Wasps side as well.
The London side always had the ability to win any one-off game but as we saw with Leicester Tigers it takes time to build consistency. The ability to defeat the likes of Bath or Tigers on their day was plain for all to see. However, to reach the next level something had to change.
A Coaching Dynasty Born
When Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards joined Wasps under Director of Rugby Nigel Melville, they were bottom of the Premiership in 2001. They eventually finished 7th that season thanks to the new defensive structures the pair brought in.
Gatland took over as Director of Rugby in 2002 and quickly ushered in the glory years. At this point he was a well-recognised coach after stints coaching Ireland and Connacht. However, Gatland’s time at Wasps really established his reputation as one of the world’s best coaches.
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Edwards, on the other hand, was just launching his coaching career, with Wasps being his first ever post. Moving from Rugby League to Union was a big jump but he appeared to do it with ease. Building his reputation as the ultimate defence coach Edwards brought something new to this Wasps outfit, integrating the relevant parts of Rugby League into the other code.
Wasps’ Big Match Pedigree
As illustrated above this Wasps side always had the ability to turn it on when it really mattered. The big games always seemed to attract this Wasps squad. Their success underlined this, Wasps won the Premiership three times in a row (2003-2005), but on no occasion did they finish top of the league.
Each time Wasps finished second guaranteeing them a home semi-final in the playoffs. Therefore, ensuring they had their shot at the end of the season. Once there, Wasps could turn on the style, in 2003 they defeated Gloucester 39-3 and in 2005 39-14 against Leicester.
This showed a departure from the norm of great sides. A more modern approach to success in rugby much like we have seen from Saracens in recent years. Recognising that winning the Premiership is more about peaking at the right time providing one is consistent enough, Gatland was able to build a squad that reflected changing requirements of professional rugby.
Classic European Success
Wasps’ success was not just confined to the domestic sphere. Wasps had long been a threat in European competitions, achieving quarter-final spots in 1998 and 2000. However, Gatland took them to another level.
Wasps first won the Challenge Cup in 2003 in Gatland’s first season in charge after defeating rivals Bath in the final. They backed this up with a run to the final that will go down in history. After defeating Gloucester in the quarter-final they met Munster in the semis. Winning an all-time classic 37-32 no one thought the final could match this match.
However, meeting Toulouse in the final at Twickenham in what turned out to be one of the most dramatic games in club rugby history. Both sides were packed with class, with the Toulouse side including the likes of Ntamack, Heymans and a young Michalak.
The game was locked at 20-all until the final minute of the game when a moment of madness from Poitrenaud led to this memorable try from Rob Howley. For Wasps, this sealed the game and their dynasty as one of England’s greatest sides.
The Players that made them Tick
Lawrence Dallaglio led from the front in everything he did during this career. For Wasps, as he was for England, he was their talisman. He took the reigns as captain in 1995 after Rob Andrew amongst other senior players left the club. Dallaglio amassed 227 appearances whilst at the club which is an amazing achievement considering his continuing involvement with England.
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Trevor Leota came into the Wasps set up in 1997, staying through until 2005 and racking up 202 appearances in that time. He quickly became a cult hero at the London club due to his compromising approach on the field coupled with his laid-back persona off it.
Every great side needs a great fly-half in order to be successful. Alex King was just that, scoring over 1500 points in 10 seasons. He was the rock behind a mammoth forward pack, directing them into the right areas of the pitch as well as bringing the backs into play at the right times.
Wasps Dynasty – The Blueprint for Modern Rugby
Wasps changed the face of English rugby as it adapted to professionalism in the 2000s. Embracing foreign talent alongside having a successful academy they were able to achieve success in England and in Europe.
Wasps currently find themselves in a slump right now, in no small part due to their financial difficulties. That has to be the main areas for Wasps management to sort out if they are to reach their heights again in the long term. Stability is the key for all success at this level and that needs to be the blueprint that needs recreating.
“Main Photo Credits”
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