Wasps’ 150th anniversary season isn’t five minutes old and already they have one trophy in the Cabinet having retained their Premiership Sevens title in some style at Northampton although clearly they will be looking for something rather more substantial to mark their landmark celebrations.
This is after all a club that had been ever-present in England’s top flight since Leagues began 30 years ago, a team with six Premiership titles and two European Cups to their name not to mention two back to back Pilkington Cups at the end of the Millennium. The fight for survival has been won and the move to Coventry and the Ricoh been a triumph but Wasps have garnered no major trophies since 2008. The scene is set for a return to old winning ways.
There has always been something distinctive about Wasps players and administrators – independent minded and resourceful, positive in adversity, inventive, challenging, canny and when required – on the pitch – downright stroppy with a very hard physical edge. Nobody’s fools.
Some of the really hard men in English rugby have been Wasps – Maurice Colclough, Dean Ryan, Buster White, Paul Volley, Lawrence Dallaglio, Joe Worsley – while some of the most outrageously skilful players have lined up alongside them.
The best Wasps teams have always had that ying and yang mix – audacious visionary skills tempered with street wise practicality – and perhaps that is the final piece of the jigsaw for Dai Young as he looks to land a big title. When Wasps have just fallen short recently it has usually been up front.
Outward looking, Wasps have always welcomed and benefitted from a host of outstanding overseas players, both in the amateur era and now, yet at the same time they have also retained a very English feel promoting English talent at all times. Their best sides have been pack solid with stout hearted Englishmen.
There have been big characters as well, such as Aussie lock Garrick Fay who once consumed three motorway service all day breakfasts late one night on the way back from an away game at Nottingham.
Or 21 stone Canadian lock Norman Hadley who famously sorted out two yobbos annoying passengers on the Underground by rising to his full height and ‘suggesting’ that perhaps it might be a good idea if they got off at the next stop. That earned a round of applause and a mention in the House of Commons the following day.
So where does this Wasps DNA come from? Well for years history had it that Wasps were formed when the Hampstead Club disintegrated in 1866 with half the club members going off to form Harlequins and the other half becoming Wasps, which is not wholly true. The reality is that Wasps’ three founding fathers – James Pain, Fred Alford and his brother William – were already in the process of forming a club when the available players came on tap after the old Hampstead club folded.
The triumvirate called a meeting at the Eton Hotel in Primrose Hill in the autumn of 1867 when it was formally proposed they form a new club. Eight Hampstead members attended.Pain senior was elected club president, Fred Alford was made captain at the age of 17 and Will became the club’s first secretary. Hampstead’s club colours were yellow with black hoops which led to the name of Wasps.
Wasps were not among the 21 founder members of the RFU who attended the inaugural meeting at the Pall Mall restaurant at the Haymarket on January 21, 1871 because their nominated representative went to the wrong pub and got waylaid.
In those early years, Wasps were constantly on the move, a process that was curiously repeated come the dawn of professionalism. The economics of survival was the common theme, then and now. Wasps played first at Primrose Hill then at Finchley Road and Hampstead Heath.
Then came a spell at Lillie Bridge and Beaufort House in Walham Green followed by a move south of the River to the Half Moon Ground in Putney.
By 1893 they were at Sutton Court at Chiswick, then came Hyde Farm at Balham and Wormholt Farm adjacent to Wormwood Scrubs. Playing grounds at Horn Lane in Acton was another home ground venue as was Boston Manor and a pitch adjacent to Sudbury Town railway station. In 1923 they finally bought with the aid of an RFU loan, a plot a Vale Farm in Sudbury which was to be the club’s home all the way through to the professional era and the moves to Loftus Road and Adams Park before the professional club eventually pitched their tent in Coventry.
In the early days BJ ‘Jack’ Angle set the mould, captaining the unbeaten side of 1875-76. A noted sprinter, boxer, mountaineer and a member of the Thames Rowing Club that won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley, Angle was also a well-heeled stockborker, indeed he was known as the ‘fighting stockbroker’ and was clearly a bit of a handful. As the periodical Figaro put it: “An ugly customer in a scrimmage albeit a very presentable gentleman in the drawing room.” That sounds like an unofficial Wasps club motto if ever I’ve heard one.
Angle had some lively characters to back him up, none more than Alfred Clunies-Ross, a son of Empire, who can claim to be the only international rugby player born and brought up in the Cocos-Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean. Young Archie was despatched back to Scotland to complete his education and while at St Andrew’s University played for Scotland in the first ever international against England before moving to London to study medicine and joining Wasps. He was the club’s star man on the wing until 1880 when he returned to the Cocos islands to work as both the island’s doctor and carpenter.
It wasn’t until 1930-31 that Wasps produced another unbeaten team when Ronni Swyer’s side, including Neville Compton, carried all before them. Compton was to captain Wasps between 1939 and 1947 and served the club as captain, fixture secretary and president over the decades.
Unlike many clubs, Wasps decided to stay open for ‘business’ during World war II with any itinerant rugby player of any code from any club or nation encouraged to make their way to Sudbury where a game of sorts was virtually guaranteed most Saturdays.
Wasps enjoyed some useful years in the 60s – Richard Sharp played for them at one stage – but the 70s was a decade of modest achievement with the club generally failing to make an impact in the old John Player Cup before two outstanding rugby men took a firm grip.
Roger Uttley became a galvanising force on the field towards the end of his illustrious career and then All Black centre Mark Taylor decided to stay on after New Zealand’s tour in 1978 and ended up playing for Wasps for five years, captaining them during his last three seasons at Sudbury.
Very soon top players were flocking to Sudbury. Harrow School’s burly Canuck Gareth Rees, Nigel Melville, Richard Cardus and the likes of Mark Bailey, Huw Davies and Simon Smith – the first influx of a conveyor belt of Cambridge University alumni that was soon to include Rob Andrew, Fran Clough, Chris Oti, Kevin Simms, Damian Hopley and Sean O’Leary.
All the time though those tough Wasps forwards were also to the fore – Paul Rendall, Dave Pegler, Mark Rigby, Jeff Probyn, Colin Pinnegar, Alan Simmons et al. The template was in place and has rarely been deviated from and once leagues were introduced Wasps were always going to challenge even the might of Bath and Leicester.
In the first four seasons of League rugby, with Rob Smith as coach, Wasps were runners up three times and won the title once, in 1990-91– an era which represents the first tranche off sustained Wasps excellence.
Nigel Melville took over from Smith in 1996 and there were some good years in prospect, winning their first ever professional Premiership in 1997 and the Tetleys Bitter Cup in 1999 and 2000, although there were less successful seasons when the clubs slender resources were exposed.
Warren Gatland joined Wasps soon after losing his job with Ireland in the autumn of 2001 and found the club at the foot of the Premiership table. The Melville era was drawing to a close ahead of his departure to Gloucester but Shaun Edwards had been recruited to help out with the defence and the three worked happily together to ensure a much better second half of the season with Wasps eventually finishing seventh.
Then the fun really started. At the start of the 2002-3 season Wasps moved from Loftus Road to Adams Park and the signing of Rob Howley, above, also helped send out the message that they meant business.
During his three seasons in charge – working closely with Edwards and his skipper Lawrence Dallaglio – Gatland masterminded three Premiership titles on the bounce, a Parker Pen Cup win in Europe and then, memorably, a 27-20 win over Toulouse in front of 81,000 fans in the 2005 Heineken Cup Final.
The first of those three Premiership titles came after Wasps found themselves sixth going into Christmas but more than any team Wasps and Gatland had grasped that in the brave new rugby world the thing that really mattered was scraping a place in the top four and then hitting top form in the playoffs. Wasps that year won 18 of their last 21 games in all competitions.
There were highlights aplenty in the Gatland era but the 2004-05 Heineken Cup campaign tops everything. For some the key moment was a brutal pool game at Stade Aime Giral at a time when Perpignan never lost at home. Except on this occasion they got thumped 34-6 in a game that garnered a record 15 citings – 12 for the home side and three against Wasps who refused to take a backwards step. The Perpignan faithful gave Wasps a standing ovation as they left!
The semi-final against Munster at a packed Lansdown Road was an all-time classic with Wasps winning 37-32 in a match which most off the participants rated as good if not higher standard than any Test match they had played. Wasps, however, had to go to the well again a few weeks later when a massive defensive performance with MOM Joe Worsley to the fore, was at the heart of a memorable 27-20 win over star-studded Toulouse.
Gatland’s departure at the end of the 2004-5 season to try his luck with Waikato seemed like a huge blow but Edwards remained as coach to provide the continuity, Dallaglio was still defying big injuries to lead the side and then Sir Ian McGeechan arrived as director of rugby.
For a while nothing much changed. In 2007 Wasps won the Heineken Cup final again beating old rivals Leicester. Memorably, with an inconvenient three-week break before the final, Wasps had staged a feisty warm-up game at Henley against their own Second XV, who had just won the Premiership A League. And lost. The following year Dallaglio strolled off into the sunset with yet another Premiership title safely bagged.
Since then nothing, well no titles. For a long time survival, financially, was the biggest opponent and victory only came when Wasps, under new owner Derek Richardson, took the momentous decision to up sticks to Coventry and the Ricoh and essentially relaunch the club and the business.
Moving has never fazed Wasps, in fact it has invariably breathed life into the club, and the success of that project should not have surprised us. But a big trophy is overdue. This season wold be a good time to rediscover old habits.