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'Gatland always had a way of delivering bad news quite well'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Lawrence Dallaglio accumulated quite the stash of war stories over the course of his legendary career with Wasps and England and it was lovely to note this week how his memories of life in the rugby trenches remain colourfully vivid five months shy of his 50th birthday. Not that RugbyPass could tell by Dallaglio’s surroundings that he remains one of the northern hemisphere’s most venerated players, a serial trophy winner in his noughties pomp for club and country.

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Seated in the cluttered box room of his London home, he quipped: “If you came through my door you’d never know a rugby player lived here.” Joking aside, other than a chesty cough, he was as bright as a button when drumming up publicity ahead of this Friday night’s premiere of The Sting, the opening episode in the 13-part Rugby Stories documentary series by BT Sport about the clubs competing in this season’s Gallagher Premiership. 

The series-launching Wasps episode focuses on the 2004 Heineken Cup final that they won in the dying seconds when Rob Howley dramatically chased down an innocuous grubber kick towards the Toulouse try-line that should have been safely touched down by the French team’s full-back, Clement Poitrenaud. We’ll hear much more later about that spectacular European campaign and about how Dallaglio tried to get his team not to overdo the celebrations as they had a Premiership final to play just six days later.

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Episode 23 – Jack Nowell, Ryan & Max on England Camp, Six Nations and Post Match Beers & Feeds
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Episode 23 – Jack Nowell, Ryan & Max on England Camp, Six Nations and Post Match Beers & Feeds

But first, let’s focus on the unexpected arrival some years earlier that sent the Wasps enterprise into orbit. Warren Gatland had been drummed out of the Ireland job at the end of 2001 after the IRFU instead promoted his assistant Eddie O’Sullivan and it was this infamous sacking that led to the Kiwi getting parachuted in at the English club by Nigel Melville. The rest, as they say, is history, the sort of technicolour glory the new BT documentary encapsulates.  

“He wasn’t the only reason,” insisted Dallaglio to RugbyPass, keen not to neglect the foundation that had been built pre-Gatland at Wasps. “A fair bit of the groundwork had been done before he turned up. We weren’t a serial-winning side but we won a few trophies. We had a very talented young group of players and there were some fine coaches, the likes of John Mitchell, the likes of Nigel Melville. 

“In actual fact ironically it was almost Nigel Melville’s love of Wasps that paved the way for Warren Gatland because Nigel knew he was off to Gloucester. I knew he was off to Gloucester because my mate phoned me up and said, ‘Your mate, Nigel Melville, is looking at houses down here in Gloucester’. I said, ‘Oh is he now’. But what he did do was he went out and found Warren Gatland and brought him to Wasps.

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“Successful teams tend to be a mixture of very good coaching but also a group of players that are able to challenge each other and a group of players that are able to challenge the coaches and vice-versa. The best teams I played in were coach-led but tended to be player-driven and what we got with the likes of Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Craig White, who was also instrumental in being one of the pioneers of this new way of being fit to play rugby, was this incredible sort of magic, this alchemy between coaches and players. 

“He was a quite forward-thinking coach. He had a point to prove after he left Ireland and he brought into the club this sense that your superstar players would normally give you sort of eight or nine out of ten if they could but what he realised was you are only as good as the lowest common denominator and what he was very good at was raising that level. 

“He made sure the training was short and sharp and there was a real purpose behind what we did and we had a lot of fun as well – and Warren was a guy who knew how to have fun. He liked to create that team spirit, that bond if you like, and it became a pretty successful three years.”

What Dallaglio especially treasured at Wasps was how Gatland didn’t duck making the hard call, something he went on to become legendary for in his later career in charge of Wales and the Lions. “Kiwis on the whole are pretty straightforward talking guys. There is no bluff, they say it as it is and they are quite shrewd. 

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“They are shrewd selectors but they also understand the game. He surrounded himself with very good people and it has been proven that everyone who was part of that group has gone on to achieve great, great things, not just with him but also after him. Shaun Edwards continues to do that for France etc. 

“Yeah, he was pretty shrewd. He always had a way of delivering bad news quite well. We can all go through our lives and deliver good news, that’s easy, but the mark of a guy is someone who can deliver bad news and still get someone to play for them the following week. He wasn’t ever afraid to make big calls. 

“Believe you me, if he got them right he’d let you know and if he got them wrong he was prepared to admit that he got them wrong. He’d look you in the eye. No one likes to hear bad news whether you are not playing or this, that and the other, but he would always be very direct with it and sometimes as a coach you don’t always have that. 

“You don’t always have a reason why you are picking someone over someone else, it is just a gut feeling but that is your job to go with your gut feeling and he was just very direct and very honest. You wouldn’t agree with that at the time – and I’m not talking personally, I didn’t have too many experiences where that happened to me. But you didn’t agree with him at the time but you respected the person for it and you could always leave as friends.”

How Gatland felt shafted by what happened to him as the Ireland boss even fed into Wasps’ breakthrough European Cup title-winning campaign, the Premiership side coming to Dublin in the semi-finals to eliminate Munster in a rip-roaring match that was one of the numerous giddy highlights for Dallaglio in a season of riches that began with him helping England to win the World Cup in Australia.

“For myself and a number of others, personally it was the end of an incredible twelve months really. The season started by winning the World Cup and finished by winning the European Cup and the Premiership. They call that a royal flush in most card schools – it was a pretty spectacular twelve months and we had that incredible match against Munster in the semi-final.

“That was really about us as a group going back to Ireland and maybe sticking two fingers up to a few people that had shown Warren the door and actually proving that they had made an enormous mistake. Then we played the best team you could ever wish to play in your first European final which was Toulouse. 

“It was like playing Real Madrid, and to get them at home as well, to play them at Twickenham was pretty lucky for us. We spent the majority of the game chasing shadows but somehow we managed to outscore them three tries to one and the last try was that incredible try from Rob Howley.

“I’d come back from my sin bin by then so I was on the field but I was a long way behind Rob Howley, put it that way. It was an incredible game. We got the lead just after half-time with a length-of-the-field try from Mark van Gisbergen, which was a pretty cool move. Then things started to turn back towards Toulouse when they brought (Jean-Baptiste) Elissalde on, who was an amazing player, and moved (Freddie) Michalak to ten.

“They started to chip away at our lead and then suddenly the game is all-square, 20 points all or whatever it was, and we were thinking this is going to extra time, we are going to have to hang on in there and then Rob produced his moment of magic. You felt for Poitrenaud at that time but actually, while he is remembered for that howler his career wasn’t defined by that moment. He went on to achieve many good things both as a player and as a coach. He has won the European Cup several times over so thankfully it’s not something his career will be defined by.”

Dallaglio was known as a character who liked to paint the town red but the professional in him wanted a lid put on the post-game Sunday night celebrations as Wasps had a shot at completing the European/Premiership double. “They were pretty tame in the sense that we kept it fairly local,” he shrugged when asked how they celebrated their monumental European win.

“I tried to remind everyone we had a Premiership final the following Saturday at Twickenham but you have just won your first European Cup, you don’t want to stop people from having a beer. So we were in the car park, family and friends, and then we went to the Orange Tree in Richmond, smashed it up until the early hours, went to bed and then woke up and did the same thing the following week. 

“We weren’t a side that could suddenly roll out the replacements. I think the same team played in the European Cup as the Premiership final the following week and we just about got over the line to beat Bath. We played dreadfully but we did enough to win.”

What stood out about this double-winning Wasps team was that a dozen starters – including Dallaglio – and the entire bench were English. “That’s no criticism, it was just the way it was. We were always a team that would always go English if we could. Maybe we were a bit cheaper than most of the other clubs, I don’t know, but we would always handpick a very fine, small group of carefully selected players to go with an academy, a homegrown team that was a long time in the making. 

“A lot of the guys who were part of that successful era were guys who joined Wasps at a very early age and the age profile of the team was that it took us a bit of time to stay together and win but if you look at the likes of the quality that we added to that, Rob Howley, Craig Dowd just to name a few, there was some real class that went with that as well. It was a pretty special group.”

Trevor Leota, the Samoan, was also a colourful presence. “Listen, he was a phenomenal character as well as a player with an enormous heart. He’d have a fair collection of red cards these days you’d think but he got stuck in, that is for sure, and he played with his heart on his sleeve. He was a real fans’ favourite, he’d be mixing with the fans straight in there. I thought most of the Pacific Island players in those days were sort of Christian, sort of shy, retiring types but Trevor was a complete opposite of that really.”

Those Wasps bonds are still enormously strong 18 years later. “It’s not just that team. We as a club have remained connected all the way through. We have a Wasps legends group which is probably as tight as any you will ever meet. We had a dinner last week at the Savoy Hotel which happens every five years and brings together every player from Wasps from the 60s the whole way through. We’re connected to the women’s side, the amateur side and not many of the 13 professional clubs operate in that way. That is something we are very proud of. 

“Any side that wins a lot isn’t very overly popular but sport is about rivalries, whether it is Prost against Senna, whether it is Wigan against St Helens. For us, in that era, it became Wasps against Leicester so that rivalry was incredible – but you can’t help but respect the teams. Winning once or twice is okay but when you start to do it over and over again you start to build something that is more than just a one-off and there was a great rivalry. 

“People used to look at us and think we were maybe a bit flash but I can tell you now anyone who turned up at Wasps in north London would tell you it was a more working man’s club than anything else. It’s a very honest place to be which is probably why it attracted the characters it did. 

“Your first-ever European success is always going to be very special and when you go on to win multiple trophies it’s nice to be able to say it was your first but it was very special and it capped off what I can only class in professional terms was the best year of my life. To start the year by winning the World Cup and finish it by winning the European Cup and the league, that is pretty tough to beat.” 

  • BT Sport launches Rugby Stories, a new documentary series around the thirteen clubs in the 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership. The first episode, featuring the story of Wasps, airs on Friday, March 4, at 10pm on BT Sport 1. For more information visit bt.com/sport  

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