With the Heineken Cup coming to an end this season, we decided to look back on the greatest teams to win the illustrious trophy. Coming in at No.10 is Warren Gatland’s London Wasps side of 2004.
Compared to the star studded teams who have tasted Heineken Cup victory in the last number of years, many of the teams who managed to emerge as champions in the nineties and early noughties can seem relatively weak on paper. Professionalism had not been around long enough that the Irish provinces were churning out academy starts to the extent they are now.
Top talent was not yet localised in the richest French clubs, and European club rugby did not yet have the money or prestige to attract really top level southern hemisphere talent in the droves we have seen since the turn of this decade. Indeed ten years ago a player of the stature of Mils Muliaina would have been seen as something of a coup for a major European club, and well out of the league of a minnow á la Connacht.
Looking back these realities give the time an almost romantic tinge where a bunch of players assembled over time on a reasonable budget, with a mix of honest pros, a few gems, and a sprinkling of leadership could become European champions. The London Wasps team of 2003-2004 fall into this category. Remarkably, Wasps are the last English team to lift the Heineken Cup, with this victory backed up by their second title 3 years later, and they did it with a team almost entirely comprised of English players.
10. London Wasps 2004
The main reason for Wasps’ inclusion in this list is one of the meanest packs ever assembled in English club rugby. In Simon Shaw (then a spring chicken at 31), Joe Worsley and legendary captain Laurence Dallaglio they possessed 3 battle hardened World Cup winners.In Dallaglio, like Shaw 32 at the time but with no intention of hanging up the boots, Wasps could rely upon one of the most inspirational leaders rugby has seen in the professional era.
Road To The Final
In the backs Rob Howley continued the Dad’s army theme at no.9, and they possessed another world cup medallist in Josh Lewsey, while their favourite one-club man, (apart from a one year swansong with Clermont) Alex King pulled the strings at ten. Fresh from his Ireland disappointment, Warren Gatland was building a dynasty.
Having won the Premiership comfortably the previous season, hammering Gloucester 39-3 in the final, Wasps set their sights on Europe and their pool draw was relatively kind, seeing them play the hapless Italians Calvisano and the now defunct Celtic Warriors. 2003’s runners up Perpignan were expected to provide the sternest test. When the French team rolled up to Adams Park in round 1 the English champions sensed a chance to lay down a marker and they did so spectacularly.
Inevitably with any team influenced by so many of Woodward’s world champions, forward power lay the foundation for King and Howley to pull the strings, while Lewsey added 2 tries for a 28-7 victory. A 52-33 hammering of Calvisano was followed by a shock 14-9 defeat to the Warriors, the only game Wasps would lose. Retribution was swift as they travelled to Wales and recorded a 17-12 win. 43-13 and 34-6 wins over Calvisano and Perpignan respectively saw them coast into the quarter finals. As the second best qualifier, having scored the most tries and with the best points difference, they got a favourable tie against the same Gloucester team they had hammered in the previous years domestic final, and the result was similar, Wasps winning 34-3. A penalty try added to further efforts from Dallaglio and Howley was more than enough, as more forward dominance sent Wasps to Lansdowne Road and their first European semi-final. There they would face the Heineken cup’s most famous competitors, Munster, already veterans and heading for a 5th semi-final in a row.
If Munster’s story of heartache and passion was one of the main driving forces between the Heineken Cup’s development, then this semi-final is easily identifiable as a huge stepping stone in the still fledgling tournament’s increasing popularity. Ten years on it is still exhilarating to recall the twists, turns, poor decisions and ultimately steely determination that made it such a spectacle. Munster started as favourites in front of a raucous Lansdowne crowd, but Lewsey stunned them with a try inside 5 minutes bulldozing over from inside the 22 after quality lineout work from Shaw. King converted and added a penalty.
Munster were kept in touch, however, by the ever reliable boot of Ronan O’Gara. Reliable, that is, until he was forced off with an injury after 28 minutes.
His replacement, John Holland, a natural centre, wasn’t on the field of play 10 minutes before Howley sprang to block down his clearance kick, gathered the ball and passed to Paul Volley to score a crucial try. Another followed just after half time, when a classy break from Tom Voyce allowed fullback Mark Van Gisbergen to plant down in the corner. Holland managed to keep the Irishmen in touch however, and at 22-18 the game took its second monumental swing. A sin-binning to Wasps centre Fraser Waters gave Munster a man advantage, and they capitalised with tries from Anthony Foley and Jim Williams, for a 32-22 lead with 20 minutes remaining. Repeated infringements at the breakdown were being punished and the game was slipping away from Gatland’s charges.
Looking dead and buried, Dallaglio roused his troops for a spectacular effort, as Wasps began to march up field with ruthless efficiency. Now Munster’s discipline began to crumble, as first Donncha O’Callaghan and then Rob Henderson infringed and headed to the bin. Again the man advantage proved crucial, as a try from Voyce and a penalty from King levelled matters at 32-32. There was still time for the ultimate drama though, as Wasp’s burly hooker Trevor Leota forced his way over the line, and the TMO, after much deliberation over whether he had grounded the ball, awarded the try and the victory to Wasps.
Wasps had the luxury of returning to London, and Twickenham, for the final. After the epic battle with Munster, there was a danger that the clash with reigning champions Toulouse might be a calmer, less tense affair. No such luck for Gatland’s men, as the final ended up with Rob Howley providing one of the most iconic moments in Heineken cup history. Wasps started the game slowly and were 6-0 nil down before their first meaningful attack, which ended with Van Gisbergen slotting a penalty. They leapt into life, however, when a sweet passing move involving Van Gisbergen, Howley and Shaw saw centre Stuart Abbot cross for a try. Toulouse out-half Yann Delaigue helped with some poor kicking, missing a penalty and sending two ambitious drop goals wide. He had considerably more success, however, kicking from hand, as he gathered his own chip ahead to score in the corner, before missing the conversion. A monster penalty from Van Gisbergen saw the scores 13-11 to Wasps at half time.
They extended that advantage to 9 shortly after the break, after a break from King saw Van Gisbergen, looking more and more like a man of the match, crash over. After another missed penalty and drop from Delaigue, it wasn’t looking like Toulouse’s day, until another key swing in momentum. Dallaglio was sin binned for persistent infringing at the breakdown, and suddenly Wasps looked decidedly vulnerable. Toulouse were dominating possession and territory, and more infringing from Wasps allowed Jean-Baptiste Elissalde to kick 3 unanswered penalties and level the match. Both teams had chances to win, King hitting the post with a drop goal, before Howley had his final say. A loose 22 drop out from Elissalde found its way to the Welsh veteran, who immediately turned the defence with a clever grubber kick down along the left touchline.
There to deal with the kick was Toulouse fullback Clement Poitrenaud. Clement amassed 44 caps for France; he won fans all over Europe with his dazzling attacking ability, but gave several managers nightmares with his flaky defending. Poor Clement, who everyone marvelled at but no one really trusted. He halted his run as he met the ball about 5 metres out, intending to allow it out of play for a Toulouse throw in. The ball, however, had other ideas.
Continuing on a physics-defyingly straight trajectory, it bounced along the line. All of a sudden the damn thing had crossed the try line and Clement knew he had to act. But he didn’t simply hack a boot at it. No, Clement Poitrenaud was too refined for that. Stooping to touch the ball down, Poitrenaud had underestimated the pace of the 13 stone of 34-year old Welshman haring along the side-line. With a despairing lunge, Howley knocked the ball from Poitrenaud’s grasp, and managed to ground it.
Alain Rolland, in disbelief, consulted his TMO while the crowd refused to believe what they had seen. But the video evidence was totally conclusive. Try, game, and trophy to Wasps.
Evaluating where Wasps stand in the ranking of Heineken Cup champions is difficult. Their monstrous pack was not matched by outstanding talent in the backline. Many of their main players were on their way out. But the true romance of that Wasps team lay in the less heralded players.
Van Gisbergen’s performances in the knockout phase surprised everyone. The centre pairing of Waters and Abbott had the seasons of their lives. These, coupled with the Likes of Lewsey, Shaw and Dallaglio’s quality and winning mentality helped them over the line. They pushed the limits of the rule book; they were at times downright cynical, as evidenced by sin binnings once games got tough. But they found a way to hang in and ultimately win.
In their favour was the nature of their knockout victories, a semi-final and final that will be remembered for years. Yet they are denied a higher placing by the knowledge that their indiscipline was let off the hook by an injured O’Gara and a misfiring Yann Delaigue.
A glance at their final squad also suggests they would struggle with the incredible depth of talent some of the French and Irish champions were able to muster. Gatland did not make a single substitution in the final, a scarcely believable stat by today’s standards. But In terms of sheer grit, determination and finding a way to win, Wasps’ 2004 vintage ranks high.
Wasps 2004 Heineken Cup Final team:
London Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; J Lewsey, F Waters, S Abbott, T Voyce; A King, R Howley; T Payne, T Leota, W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley, P Volley, L Dallaglio (capt)
Scorers: Tries – R Howley, S Abbott, M Van Gisbergen; Cons – M Van Gisbergen (3); Pens – M Van Gisbergen (2);
Yellow cards: L Dallaglio (56)
Featured Image By David Howlett from near High Wycombe, UK (Lawrence Dallaglio) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.