Johnson yields place of honour to Gatland's hat-trick heroes

Leicester 14 - Wasps 39
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is nostalgia in rugby, whole heaps of it, but very little sentiment. Martin Johnson did not ask for the s-factor at Twickenham on Saturday and did not receive it.

There is nostalgia in rugby, whole heaps of it, but very little sentiment. Martin Johnson did not ask for the s-factor at Twickenham on Saturday and did not receive it.

"Don't feel sorry for us," he said, talking collectively rather than individually, as always. "We deserved to lose." Just as Wasps deserved to win, even though they had spent 22 matches of the regular season coming second. Next term, the other 11 teams in the Premiership will perfect the art of scoring "own tries" in an effort to ensure that the Londoners finish top of the league. That'll teach the blighters.

Or will it? Warren Gatland, the New Zealander who has coached the champions with astonishing adroitness over the last three and a half years, may be heading back to the farmlands of Waikato, but he leaves behind him a club in the rudest of health. His charges are fitter than virtually everyone else and play a style of top-of-the-ground rugby that, in its unique dynamism and physicality, forces opponents to play the game on unfamiliar terms. On this evidence, the Rugby Football Union could order Wasps to play three men short from September to April and still have to crown them in May.

Gatland talks a good deal about the development of English rugby, which in his considered opinion depends to a significant degree on a greater acceptance of the élite league's play-off system. With three Premierships and a European title in his back pocket, the former All Black hooker is in a position to say what he likes. But what he should be talking about is his own contribution to that future, which, in one particular corner of the home counties, looks brighter than a nebula in the night sky.

"Very few overseas coaches can be said to have taken our game onwards and upwards," mused Lawrence Dallaglio, the winning captain and a stand-out performer on the day. "Warren can very definitely be included in that number. The bloke is brilliant, no doubt about it, and while he's leaving one set of black shirts behind him, another awaits. He'll be All Blacks coach one day, for sure. I just hope it's long after I've packed it in. I don't want to face a New Zealand team conditioned and organised by him."

Front-row troglodytes from the land of the silver fern are not meant to be "ideas men"; certainly, there were precious few Isaiah Berlins playing in the ferocious Waikato pack of the early 1990s, which had Gatland at its fulcrum. But since succeeding Nigel Melville at Wasps following a highly political and deeply personal falling out with the Irish hierarchy - he had been coaching the national team at the time, with considerable success - Gatland has brought the shock of the new to this country.

He gives his players oodles of time off, rarely working them on the training field for more than an hour at a stretch; he has played the likes of Josh Lewsey out of position and come up smelling of roses; he has fast-tracked youngsters such as Ayoola Erinle and Tom Rees to something close to Test pitch; he has rescued deadbeats like Phil Greening; he has won titles without a scrum or a line-out worthy of the name.

All this and more was brought to bear on Leicester at the weekend, and the warmish favourites from the Midlands did not have the first idea how to respond. Not even Johnson, who played his heart out on his farewell appearance yet looked entirely helpless; not even Neil Back, who was so badly outplayed by Joe Worsley that he belted him hard in the mouth, causing a wound that would not close until 13 stitches had been inserted. Back is flying to Auckland with the British and Irish Lions on Wednesday week, while Worsley is flying to Thailand for a beach holiday. It is not really proper to say this on the strength of a single 80-minutes, but Sir Clive Woodward may have got this one arse about face.

Worsley was not best pleased at being on the wrong end of Back's frustration. "It was a bit of a cheap shot," he said. "I picked a good line off a line-out, which is what open-side flankers are meant to do, and he didn't like it. Yes, I took exception to being punched, and still do, especially as I'm going to find it difficult to have a drink. But it was his last game for Leicester, we won the cup ... hey. Had it affected the result, I'd be far more pissed off than I am. I was quite surprised to find him still on the pitch when I got up off the floor, but as things stand I hope he doesn't get cited. He has a Lions tour to think about."

Not for the first time on a big club occasion, Worsley's performance was nothing short of stupendous. Dallaglio was right up there alongside him, as were Lewsey and Simon Shaw and Alex King. These were the men at the heart of things: Lewsey set the tone in the opening minute by winning the first aerial contest and earning the accomplished Mark van Gisbergen an early shot at the sticks; Dallaglio's heavy tackle on Ollie Smith generated the chaos from which Tom Voyce claimed an opening try from distance; Shaw's open-field running created Van Gisbergen's score in the final quarter that ended what passed for Leicester resistance; King pulled the strings like a master puppeteer.

Johnson was conspicuous by his absence from the after-match formalities, but as he rarely spoke in public after a victory, few were surprised at his reluctance to chew the fat in defeat. And Dallaglio was more than happy to speak for him.

"There were a lot of issues surrounding the game and Martin's retirement was one of them," he said. "I know for a fact that he hates all that attention, that he would have preferred a nice quiet build-up. I saw him at a dinner in London a few nights ago, and he said: 'Lawrence, has your week been like my week?' I said: 'Er, probably not, Martin.' It must have been difficult for him."

Lewsey, as chipper as ever, put it another way. "Our word of the week during the build-up was 'desperation'," he reported.

"Whenever we were on our way home, dog-tired after a training session, someone would say: 'While you're resting up, just imagine the sight of Neil Back or Martin Johnson holding that trophy.' I guess it worked."

Leicester: S Vesty (A Tuilagi, 74); L Lloyd (A Healey, 51), O Smith, D Gibson, G Murphy; A Goode, H Ellis (S Bemand, 20); D Morris (G Rowntree, h-t), G Chuter (J Buckland, 80), J White, M Johnson (capt), B Kay (W Johnson, 80), L Deacon (L Moody h-t), N Back, M Corry.

Wasps: M van Gisbergen; P Sackey, A Erinle, J Lewsey, T Voyce (R Hoadley, 80); A King (J Brooks, 80), M Dawson (W Fury, 83); T Payne (C Dowd, 77), P Greening (T Leota, 77), W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett (M Purdy, 80), J Hart (J Haskell, 80), J Worsley, L Dallaglio (capt).

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).

Comments