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A potential full house at Twickenham on Sunday, 20 May, will witness two true English heavyweights slug it out for the honour of being crowned Heineken Cup winners and champions of Europe.
If ever there was a fitting match for the Heineken Cup final at the home of English rugby it is a pairing of Leicester Tigers and London Wasps – the two teams who have enjoyed significant success in the professional era.
Under the tutelage of Dean Richards, the Tigers carried off the English League title in 1999/00, 00/01 and 01/02 seasons. Then it was the turn of Warren Gatlands’ London Wasps to take three championships on the spin – their dominance only being broken by Sale Sharks’ Premiership final victory over Leicester at Twickenham at the end of last season.
Crucially, between them they have carried off the Heineken Cup on three occasions.
Leicester were winners in 2001 when they stunned Stade Francais Paris 34-30 in a marvellous final at Parc des Princes and they retained their crown when they edged out Munster 15-9 in a tense affair at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium a year later.
London Wasps won their European title in 2004, when Rob Howley embarrassed Clement Poitrenaud to dive on a bouncing ball and score a last-minute try that will forever be on Heineken Cup highlight reels. The last kick of the match was the conversion that made the final score Wasps 27, Toulouse 20.
That day was oh so sweet for captain Lawrence Dallaglio, and the veteran back-row will return to Twickenham and try and recapture those memories against arch enemies Leicester.
But the Tigers’ are on a roll. After losing their opening match of this season’s competition 19-21 to Munster at Welford Road, they have been unstoppable on their way to recording seven wins on the bounce.
Victory in Round 6 against Munster at Thomond Park not only destroyed the then champions’ proud unbeaten record at that venue in this competition, but gave the Tiger’s real belief that they could win their third Heineken Cup crown.
A nail-biting quarter-final win over Stade Francais at Welford Road set up a semi-final showdown with team-of-the-moment, Llanelli Scarlets. There was history between there two sides, the Welsh region remembering their heartbreaking 13-12 semi-final defeat in 2002, and they were in no mood to feel that pain again in 2007.
But they came up against a team possessed. The Tigers built an early lead and finished with a flourish to win 33-17 and book a place in the Twickenham final.
London Wasps have quietly gone about their business this season. Written off by many at the start of the season as an ageing team, they have shown that at this level experience counts, and Dallaglio et al are now just 80 minutes away from European glory.
Exiting young talent in the shape of Danny Cipriani (four starts, two replacement appearances and three tries) and Dom Waldouck (six starts, one try) have given Wasps power and punch behind an experienced pack that includes Raphael Ibanez and Joe Worsley – players with genuine pedigree and a winning mentality.
They have class all over the park and with a management team as canny as Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards, they have the tactical nous to undo anyone on their day.
A Pool stage record of five wins and one loss was complimented by impressive wins over Leinster (35-13) in the quarter-final and Northampton Saints (30-13) in the semi.
Now Leicester awaits, and what a final we have in store. Watch out Twickenham – this is going to be huge.
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Wily old magician Raphael Ibanez conjured up two superb tries as London Wasps lifted the Heineken Cup at Twickenham on Sunday
Ibanez was at the heart of both of Wasps’ tries – scoring the second – as Leicester fell at the final hurdle of the bid for an historic treble.
The Tigers had the Guinness Premiership and EDF Energy Cup trophies in their cabinet but Wasps never looked like giving up their early lead in front of a tournament record 81,076 fans.
Tigers fly-half Andy Goode and opposite number Alex King traded early penalty goals as the two heavyweights of European rugby introduced themselves for the third time in Heineken Cup history, but the huge contingent of Leicester fans were stunned into silence on the quarter mark.
French skipper Ibanez flipped in a pinpoint lineout throw to scrum-half Eion Reddan, who had an untouched run to the tryline.
And, just as the Tigers started to gain crucial possession and territory, they were embarrasingly left floundering by the same move. This time, Ibanez threw the ball in high to Simon Shaw, who flicked it back to the veteran hooker for another score in the corner. King failed with both sideline conversions, and a third penalty goal from Goode narrowed Wasps’ lead to 13-9 at the halftime break.
King extended the lead with a penalty goal, early in the second spell and Tigers’ fans began thinking that is wasn’t going to be their day when Goode missed a goal from a handy angle. King slotted his third goal to give the underdogs a ten-point lead going into the final half hour, and he added a drop goal as the game began to slip form the Tigers.
A great run from Wasps replacement James Haskell set up King for another goal and Lawrence Dallaglio started work on his victory speech.