The final touch
May 14, 2009
Wasps flanker Lawrence Dallaglio consoles Leicester's Martin Johnson after his final game in the 2005 Premiership final © Getty Images
Any final has its share of heroes and villains, whether it is the player looking for a fine send-off or the fly-half scrapping for a result that nobody remembers. So with the 2009 Guinness Premiership final having rounded off the domestic season with Leicester beating London Irish 10-9 at Twickenham, we take a look back at some of the key figures in the young history of finals day.
In a list dominated by Wasps players and coaches there is room for winners and losers, and also those whose achievements were swiftly forgotten in the growing pains of what has become one of the biggest stages in club rugby.
A towering presence in English rugby, Johnson rolled in to the 2005 Premiership final against Wasps with his eyes set firmly on a glittering farewell to the sport that he had served since 1993. At a packed Twickenham his dream unravelled as Wasps, kings of the knockout phase, emphatically rained on his parade.
With the Londoners chasing a hat-trick of Premiership titles Leicester's skipper, and fellow World Cup-winning retiree Neil Back, went in to the game on a hype train that looked set to deliver a storybook ending. The Tigers were thrashed 39-14 by a granite-like Wasps, with Lawrence Dallaglio, Joe Worsley and Josh Lewsey all turning in towering displays. Johnson left the game on a low, but his disappointment was nothing compared to the glare that faced Back after his punch on Worsley resulted in 13 stitches in the Wasps flanker's mouth.
"When you turn on the radio and TV and keep hearing of Martin Johnson and Neil Back - two of the greatest players the game has ever seen and they rightly deserve the praise they get - it gets to you a bit," said Dallaglio. "We have been champions the last two years. We are a side that win when we have to win."
Lawrence Dallaglio - Wasps (2008)
Having helped to orchestrate a not-so-fond farewell for Johnson, Dallaglio's turn came in 2008. Against his old foes Leicester, Dallaglio and Wasps wound back the clock with a clinical display. Having never topped the Premiership at the end of the regular season, Wasps again timed their run perfectly to secure the spoils under the bright lights of Twickenham.
Tom Rees and Josh Lewsey crossed for Wasps, cancelling out efforts from Tigers Harry Ellis and Tom Varndell. The sight of Dallaglio with the Premiership trophy was oft repeated, and the hardest of back-rows was not to be denied in his final Twickenham appearance. He left the field with the game firmly in Wasps' grip to a prolonged standing ovation before parading his final trophy alongside his daughters.
Warren Gatland - Wasps (2003, 2004, 2005)
The wily Kiwi coach will always be synonymous with Wasps' playoff success, his particular brand of rugged individualism meshing perfectly with a hard-nosed set of players to create the most successful English side of the professional era. When the pressure was on Gatland's team almost invariably delivered, winning a trio of Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup before his return to New Zealand with Waikato.
While Gatland was overlooked for a Super 14 position and has been passed over in terms of All Blacks coaching posts, he went on to confirm his presence at the head of the European game by leading Wales to a Six Nations Grand Slam in his first season in charge in 2008, adding northern hemisphere's most prestigious international accolade to his already bulging domestic haul.
Jason Robinson - Sale Sharks (2006)
Jason Robinson excelled across both codes, creating a stir in rugby league with Wigan and Great Britain before jumping ship to rugby union in 2000. He was an England international and a British and Irish Lion in his first season and a dazzling presence at fullback or on the wing.
His club side was Sale, and it was in their colours that he won the 2006 Premiership final. In doing so he became the first man to win both the Rugby League Grand final and the English Premiership final in union. His Sale side crushed perennial challengers Leicester 45-20 at Twickenham to claim their first Premiership title, with Robinson etching his name in to the history books in the process. Oh, and he won the Rugby World Cup. Not bad.
Stuart Abbott - Wasps (2004)
There is something to be said for good timing. Wasps centre Stuart Abbott was an unassuming member of a squad containing England heavyweights Dallaglio, Worsley and Lewsey but his capacity to deliver on the big stage set him apart as the perfect example of Wasps' attitude in the professional era.
In 2004 Abbot had a remarkable week to remember. On May 23 he crossed the whitewash to give Wasps the lead over Toulouse in a Heineken Cup final at Twickenham that they went on to win with Rob Howley's famous late try past French international fullback Clement Poitrenaud. A week later, he was at it again.
In a game every bit as close as the Heineken Cup final Abbot's try helped Wasps to a famous double as they defeated Bath 10-6 at Twickenham to claim the domestic crown. Tom Voyce made the break, Abbott was on his shoulder all the way and the title was in the bag. He was forced to retire in 2007 due to a shoulder injury but took away a hatful of domestic trophies and a cameo role in England's march to the Rugby World Cup title in 2003.
Ludovic Mercier - Gloucester (2002)
Premiership finals day was not always the grandstand occasion that it is today. In the early days of the tournament it was seen as a distraction, with the winners not recognised as the champions of England. Pity Gloucester then, who won their first trophy outright in the final in 2002 only for everyone to proclaim Leicester as the champions of England after they finished top of the league table.
The Cherry and Whites' hero as they defeated Bristol 28-22 at Twickenham was Ludovic Mercier, whose metronomic kicking cancelled out a pair of Bristol tries and an excellent performance with the boot from Felipe Contepomi. Mercier landed 23 points for Gloucester and kept Bristol at arm's length for the afternoon, rescuing an average performance in the process. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, nobody cared.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September