Wasps kings of Europe once again
May 21, 2007
"It was typical of Wasps that they should keep the best to last, an overwhelming display that left the most consistent and resourceful team in England utterly powerless." Huw Richards reports
The really good news came, of course, before kick-off.
Jean-Pierre Lux's statement was baldly short of supporting detail, but it contained the one point that truly mattered - that English rugby's warring factions had backed off their threats of Mutually Assured Destruction and their French allies were following suit. There will be a Heineken European Cup next season.
While the news was expected, the relief remains profound. More than most seasons, 2007-8 will badly need the annual lift that the coming of the Heineken provides, the perfect counter to the almost inevitable sense of anticlimax that sets in after a World Cup.
There was no anticlimax, unless you are a committed Leicester supporter, about the contest that followed. It could hardly be expected to match the emotional impact of Munster's victory last season - it is hard to imagine quite how that can be replicated in the near future. It did, though, produce a performance worthy of both the occasion and of the largest crowd ever assembled for a club match.
Wasps were at their best, in the form in which they are the most difficult opposition in club rugby. They swarmed all over Leicester from the start, reducing Tuilagi, the terror of Gloucester, to a state of spluttering exasperation.
If Raphael Ibanez was the hero with two pieces of quick-thinking opportunism, the second producing the largest grin we are ever likely to see wreathing those expressive features, others were only a little behind him. Tom Rees was the pick of a dominant backrow while Fraser Waters delivered an immense defensive performance.
Leicester were completely subjugated. Poor reward, they may feel, for a campaign that included perhaps the performance of the tournament when they erased Munster's invincibility at Thomond Park, followed by a magnificent comeback against Stade Francais.
That, of course, was the last of a series of results that may lead the unwary to conclude that this was the season of the French boycott, as they disappeared from the competition after the quarter-finals, joined still less predictably by the Irish - Munster ending unhappily at Llanelli after their early displays, particularly their opening day victory at Leicester, had suggested a team wholly at ease with the role of champions.
Filling the gap to some extent were a resurgent Welsh trio with Llanelli producing the closest rival to Leicester's win at Limerick with their astonishing victory away to Toulouse and Ospreys distinctly unlucky not to join them in the last eight. Each will hope to go a little better next season, while warily aware that the French and Irish are unlucky to achieve as little again.
This was, though, an English year. Nothing seemed less likely on opening day when only Wasps, and they decidedly uneasy in scraping past Castres at Adams Park, were winners. Theirs was a comparatively low-key progress, with nothing to match the drama of Leicester's wins over Munster and Stade, the atmosphere of Stradey on the Friday night when Munster were ejected or the sheer unexpectedness of Northampton's victory in Biarritz.
In retrospect their victory at Castres in the final round of the pool stage was one of the moments of the year, a less specatacular equivalent of their resounding win at Perpignan in the year of their last victory.
Little had worried them since. Leinster were beaten comprehensively at Adams Park and Northampton, after a lively opening, went down in the semi-final.
It was typical of Wasps that they should keep the best to last, an overwhelming display that left the strongest, most consistent and most resourceful team in England utterly powerless. Cometh the hour, cometh the team - and not for the first time as they clinched their eighth consecutive victory in a major final.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
They came to Murrayfield looking to put down a marker, but Scotland were sent home with their tails between their legs, writes Tristan Barclay
With the World Cup only a few months away, the last thing France needed was doubts over the future of their coach, writes Huw Richards
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland