Rugby Union: Final adversaries still polls apart

Hugh Godwin sees empty seats but a full-blooded confrontation
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CUP FINALS are rarely chock full of those jump-out-of-your-seat moments, all the more so when two such evenly matched sides as this are pitted against each other. In this respect the north end of Twickenham was definitely the place to be, both for Alex King's sumptuous first half try and to get the best view of Josh Lewsey running down the runaway bull, Va'aiga Tuigamala, when Newcastle were so desperate to force their way back into contention.

Sadly, the north stand was only about a third full, and the great swathes of vacant seats posed their own silent questions. Two days before the match the Rugby Football Union's ticket office had predicted a crowd of 44,000 and that looked about right. Seeing that polls are the flavour of the month it would have been instructive to conduct one among the missing thousands.

No doubt some were turned off by the constant bickering of the last couple of years. At pounds 30 and pounds 24 for adults, pounds 12 for children the RFU were not exactly giving tickets away (the match was uninspiringly billed in advance advertising as `Tickets Available').

Remember, too, that the boom years of capacity cup final crowds tended to involve Bath or Leicester, or both, clubs with larger fan bases than either of these two. And plenty of neutrals might have been tempted, instead, by Bath's offer to watch the match on a big screen at The Rec before their team's five o'clock kick off in a Premiership fixture. That is the equivalent of Arsenal playing a league game on the afternoon of the FA Cup final and confirms it is everyone for himself in club rugby.

Just by way of record, the attendance figure was a mere 24,500 back in 1986 when one Gareth Rees stepped out for Wasps as a callow Harrow schoolboy in the Cup Final.

Rugby may be desperately trying to come over all sexy, you might think, in which case this final should surely have been won by Jonny Wilkinson, the face of England's future, not Rees, the Canadian with three World Cups behind him.

Perhaps a few punters were unaware that, at half time, one competition winner would have the chance to kick three goals for pounds 1m. He failed, and the sport's first pounds 1m player, `Inga' Tuigamala, did too, despite the Samoan's very best efforts.

Wasps were on a mission. Legend has it that they missed out on founder membership of the RFU when their representative pitched up at the wrong pub on the appointed evening 125-odd years ago.

More recently, Wasps have had no problem at all finding their way to Twickenham - this was their fifth final - only difficulty in making it up the last few steps to pick up the prize. They were kitted out in orange jerseys to prevent a completely monochrome clash with the black of Newcastle, and their eye catching hooker Trevor Leota responded in kind with his hair do.

For the most part, that was as far as the frippery extended. The play was never dull if you were a purist, but it was a bout of butter fingers in the last knockings leading to two interception tries which livened things up.

Joy, then, for the Wasps quartet of former Bristol University students. Bristol, the club, have had past regimes fired at with criticism of mis- management and perhaps the loss of these four - King, Lewsey, Mark Denney and Fraser Waters - was part of the ammunition. Wilkinson was far from obliterated by his opposite number King but, after the latter's two years of stop-start rugby through injury, no one could begrudge King his crowning moment.

Tuigamala smilingly enhanced his benevolent reputation by embracing his cousin Leota after the final whistle. Inga had failed to write his name into the history books as the first man to win cup winners' medals in both codes of English rugby.

But he looked happy enough and, in defeat, let us hope the same can be said of the small boy witnessed on the London tube travelling to the match complete with black and white curly wig, Newcastle shirt and shorts, black and white socks and even black and white trainers. Missing thousands, maybe, but if that lad and enough others enjoyed themselves, then all have won.