They craved a fairy tale, and they were granted their hearts' desire. Thousands upon thousands of Wasps supporters – most of whom had not previously realised they were anything of the sort, judging by the average gate at England's most successful club – watched Lawrence Dallaglio, rugby's favourite West End wide boy, end his career with the Guinness Premiership trophy in one hand and a microphone in the other. He used the latter to dedicate his final triumph, not to one of his own, but to the revered broadcaster Alastair Hignell, forced into retirement at 52 by multiple sclerosis. It was an act of purest generosity, and it was wonderful.
But as we know, certain fairy tales have the word "Grimm" attached to them, and cast a shadow over their audience rather than suffuse them with light. For all the splendour of the new champions' performance before a record crowd of almost 82,000 – the rugby played by Wasps in the first half was not a million miles short of perfection – the events of the last 15 minutes were deeply unsatisfactory. Sadly the game ended with a fly in the soup, a nasal hair in the holy water.
After 50 minutes of humiliation at the hands of a Wasps pack in which the flankers, James Haskell and Tom Rees, played at precisely the level required by England in the forthcoming Test series against New Zealand, the Leicester forwards suddenly remembered that they had travelled to Twickenham to play, not watch, and set about their work with a hunger wholly absent hitherto. They forced a straightforward penalty opportunity for Andy Goode, which he missed; they created the space for Harry Ellis to threaten with a kick-and-scamper routine; they applied sufficient pressure for Goode to aim a precise kick to the right corner, where Tom Varndell claimed a try to cut his side's deficit to 12 points at 11-23.
And then it happened. Tim Payne, the international loose-head prop who had coped admirably with the strong-arm methods of Julian White at the set-piece, limped towards the West Stand. Wasps had already removed Phil Vickery from the fray and had no other specialist front-row option, so uncontested scrums were called on the grounds of safety. Leicester were apoplectic; indeed, Martin Corry, their captain, was overheard informing the referee, Wayne Barnes, that this development would leave his side royally rogered, or words to that effect.
It was hard not to sympathise with him. Having belatedly worked out a way of engaging the Wasps forwards and spent 10 minutes or so establishing some supremacy, the Tigers saw their chances of playing the bear-pit rugby they drank in with their mothers' milk disappear at a stroke. Perversely, they scored from the first uncontested scrum when Ellis scooted round the short side to score on Haskell's watch, but that was hardly the point. The fundamental nature of the game had changed, and the Londoners were the sole beneficiaries.
Sharp practice? We must pray not. Ian McGeechan is surely too honest a coach to soil his hands with such underhand tactics. Leicester will always have their suspicions, though. Wasps had been responsible for, and benefited from, uncontested scrums during their semi-final victory over Bath, who were very much in the ascendant at the set-piece, and when Vickery said after Saturday's game that he was no more than "a little tired and a little sore", adding that it had always been planned to play 40 minutes rather than 80, it was impossible not to wonder just a little.
Had the International Rugby Board done its job two years ago, rugby would not have made a mockery of itself in front of the biggest crowd ever to watch a club match. In 2006, the English wanted to embrace a system developed in France under which a team causing uncontested scrums spent the remainder of the game playing a man short. It was, everyone agreed, a sensible, workable solution. Everyone, that is, except the IRB, who blocked it on the grounds that the sport could not have different sets of laws in different parts of the world. Since when, of course, the IRB has gone out of its way to introduce different sets of laws in different parts of the world.
"The rules on this must change," said Marcelo Loffreda, the Leicester coach. "It is a more important change than any of those the IRB are seeking to impose. For us, it caused not only a technical problem, but a problem of psychology. The scrum was part of the virtuous circle we were trying to create for ourselves, the key to applying pressure. When I saw what was happening, I said: 'What is this?' I was frustrated. Deeply frustrated."
Loffreda might be more frustrated still at the continued uncertainty surrounding his position at the head of the Leicester operation. He has had precious few words of support from the board who sanctioned his appointment and welcomed him to Welford Road after a World Cup at which he had proved himself one of the finest strategists in the game, and when asked whether he would still be around come September, he replied: "I really don't know. I would love to stay, but I am not the person who can answer this question."
There were times at the weekend when Loffreda must have wished he was back in Buenos Aires. Fully aware of the threat posed by Wasps' footballing forwards – Leicester could not compete with Raphael Ibanez, Simon Shaw, Tom Palmer or the two exceptional flankers in terms of skill – he was taken aback by his pack's apparent pacifism. Boris Stankovich, Mefin Davies, Marco Wentzel and Ben Herring were badly outmuscled as well as outplayed, and as a consequence, Wasps should have been 25 points up at the interval.
As it was, contrasting tries by Rees and Josh Lewsey, playing in his optimum position of left wing, saw the Londoners turn round with a below-par advantage of 17 points. They defended their lead but it required a behind-the-sticks rant from Dallaglio to refocus the Wasps effort after Ellis's try.
"He told us we had fallen off our standards, that we should forget the fancy stuff and concentrate on playing with the physicality we'd shown in the first half," said Rees. Had the England breakaway given even the slightest thought as to how the team might cope without its spiritual leader? "We'll miss him terribly," he acknowledged, "but I'm confident the mentality he has instilled into us will take us forward. Even during his last week as a player, it was never just about him. It was about us, about what we all wanted to take from the day. Lawrence may have gone, but the attitude stays."
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; P Sackey, F Waters, D Waldouck (J Staunton, 84), J Lewsey; R Flutey, E Reddan (M McMillan, 84); T Payne (J Worsley, 63), R Ibanez (J Ward, 62), P Vickery (P Barnard, h-t), S Shaw, T Palmer (R Birkett, 84), J Haskell, T Rees, L Dallaglio (capt, J Hart, 71).
Leicester: G Murphy; A Tuilagi, D Hipkiss (A Erinle, h-t), A Mauger (Erinle, 18-26), T Varndell; A Goode, H Ellis (C Laussucq, 84); B Stankovich (M Ayerza, 58), M Davies (B Kayser, 47), J White, M Wentzel (R Blaze, 54), B Kay, M Corry (capt), B Herring (T Croft, 58), J Crane.
Referee: W Barnes (London).
'The reception shows how much respect he has in the game'
"He's deserved all the plaudits he's received this week and no doubt tomorrow. Lawrence has been magnificent both for Wasps and England, and a great man to play with and against." - Martin Corry, Leicester captain and former England forward.
"It's a fitting way for him to go out. The reception from the crowd shows how much respect he has in the game, even among away fans. He's not just a player to me, he's like family." - Shaun Edwards, Wasps head coach.
"He's a fantastic example, he plays with emotion, he talks with it, he leads with it and it rubs off on the players and coaches he's involved with. I never thought I'd see the day when Wasps fans outnumbered Leicester fans at Twickenham and I think that's because of Lawrence. I think a lot of people made a special effort to come today because of the man." - Ian McGeechan, Wasps director of rugby.
"He is one of the most fantastic figures I have come across in decades in the sport." - Stephen Jones, Sunday Times.
"What a leader; what an absolute achiever he is. As a rugby player and a man he deserved every single one of his monumental achievements and accolades." - Matt Stevens, England and Bath prop, Sunday Telegraph.Reuse content