Wasps' revival generates buzz as club titans go head-to-head

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Chris Hewett picks his Premiership team of the season

Lawrence Dallaglio's last game of rugby is very definitely a big deal, but there must be a whole lot more to this afternoon's Premiership final between Wasps and Leicester than an 80-minute long goodbye from the most charismatic player of his generation. Otherwise, it would be impossible to imagine 82,000 spectators, give or take a few dozen, bothering to sardine themselves into Twickenham, thereby breaking the world record for attendance at a club match.

The truth of the matter – and there are members of the Rugby Football Union who would prefer not to hear it – is that the English game below Test level is gaining ground on the international version, hand over fist. If the RFU is serious about drawing a capacity crowd to England's match with the Pacific Islanders in November, it will have to bus in a couple of thousand inmates from Wormwood Scrubs to make up the numbers. Today, those who cannot buy a ticket from a tout outside the stadium will have to catch a bus to the nearest pub and watch proceedings on a big screen.

England's most successful clubs, playing a winner-takes-all match in front of the biggest audience in the history of club rugby? It is some prospect, even for those legions – many of whom live in and around Gloucester, winners of the league but champions of nothing in each of the last two seasons – who distrust and despise the play-off system foisted upon them six years ago. Who knows? Even those RFU grandees who watch Premiership games about as often as Lord Lucan gives newspaper interviews – the chairman, Martyn Thomas, the chief executive, Francis Baron – might get a kick out of this one.

A few facts and figures are in order here. The current gate record was set last year at the same venue, when the same two clubs met in the final of the Heineken Cup. The previous best in Premiership terms was set in 2005, when 66,000 spectators watched – yes, you guessed it – Wasps and Leicester squabble over the silverware. Martin Johnson and Neil Back, two half-decent forwards on their day, were making last appearances for Leicester, and finished a distant second. So much for destiny, runes, tea leaves and sentimentality. Law-rence, beware.

Just in case any arch-traditionalist should scoff at the idea of a flourishing club sector, on the basis that all this interest is centred on a couple of high-achieving teams rather than spread around the top division as a whole, it is worth pointing out something else. Wasps are not particularly well supported – Harlequins, London Irish and Saracens all have bigger followings – and while Leicester have thousands of season-ticket holders they rarely take big followings on the road with them. At least 50 per cent of today's audience will fall into the "interested neutral" category. It is another reason for the Premiership fraternity to feel good about themselves.

Wasps have been feeling good for weeks now. They struggled in the first half of the season, as they always do, but the inevitable surge in form came early by their standards – the high-octane victory at Bath in mid-February set them nicely on course – and they were excellent value for their second-placed finish in the regular campaign. The Dallaglio factor will stoke the fires still further, as will the impending departure of another hardy annual, the centre Fraser Waters, whose talents as a defensive organiser will benefit the Italians of Treviso next season.

However, two factors threaten them. In the absence of their new superhero, Danny Cipriani, whose timing in obliterating his own right ankle in the Premiership semi-final was even worse than the timing of his notorious visit to a Mayfair night spot a few hours before the Calcutta Cup match with Scotland in March, the Londoners will start without a specialist outside-half. With Cipriani in a wheelchair and Dave Walder on crutches, they have decided to move Riki Flutey inside from centre rather than back Jeremy Staunton to reacquaint himself with the demands of life at the epicentre of a top-flight contest after months on the margins.

Equally, there is the Leicester mindset to consider. They are a cussed bunch, to be sure, and the fact that they have turned in a good deal of unadulterated tripe this season does not mean for a moment that they are incapable of finding all the answers to all the questions this afternoon. Boris Stankovic, Mefin Davies, Marco Wentzel and Ben Herring are hardly household names, even in their own households, but Marcelo Loffreda, the coach, has built a career on mastering the inferiority complexes of his charges. Ask his countrymen from Argentina, whom he guided to a podium finish at the World Cup before moving to Welford Road.

Loffreda is not having a great time of it in the Midlands, to the extent that no member of the Leicester board has a supportive word to say for the man, despite his success in reaching two finals – the Tigers were runners-up in the EDF Energy Cup last month – and ensuring that the club would defend its Premiership title to the bitter end. Should his side win today, it will be most amusing to see how those who want to see the back of him respond to questions about his future. Listen how they stammer and stutter as they stumble over their sentences.

Sadly, it is not possible for both Loffreda and "Lol" to go home happy. Can Leicester, unimpressive as they are, really take it to the form team in the country? Only if they find ways of scoring in the first 20 minutes and reach the hour on the front foot. If Wasps build a lead, the "black wall" of their defensive line will take an awful lot of demolishing.

All things considered, Dallaglio can just about expect to find himself celebrating in the West End in the wee small hours of tomorrow. Yet again.

The best in the business Chris Hewett selects his Premiership team of the season

GEORDAN MURPHY (Leicester)

Still different after all these years. Leicester may be predictable; their full-back is anything but.

PAUL SACKEY (Wasps)

Some believe him to be a space cadet off the field. He's certainly stellar on it.

James Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester) Brilliant in more than one position, he will surely make it at Test level one day.

Olly Barkley (Bath)He had his personal issues, but refused to let them cramp his style. Hugely valuable.

Miles Benjamin (Worcester)New on the scene, his tries set the struggling Midlanders on the road to salvation.

Danny Cipriani (Wasps)A rugby genius? Possibly. Pray God he recovers from his busted ankle to fight another day.

Michael Claassens (Bath)A transformative figure. Bath have not seen his like since Richard Hill packed it in.

Nick Lloyd (Saracens)Barely visible to the naked eye, yet no one worked him over at the scrum. Excellent.

Aleki Lutui (Worcester)The human dodgem. Terrific for Tonga at the World Cup and wonderful for Worcester.

Matt Stevens (Bath)Scrummaging, tackling, ball-carrying, offloading, singing in the shower... the man can do it all.

Danny Grewcock (Bath)Hard as nails and still dishing out the hammerings at 35. Maximum respect, as ever.

Bob Casey (London Irish)An honest toiler in the Grewcock mould, he set the standard and maintained it.

Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)Quins came alive because their back row clicked. Robshaw was the selfless, crucial component.

Akapusi Qera (Gloucester) Astonishing athleticism, jaw-dropping skills. If Fijian rugby is on a high, Qera is at its summit.

James Haskell (Wasps)Just about the pick of Wasps' back row, ahead of the unsung John Hart. High-class.

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