Wasps face 'biggest match in history' against Newcastle

Wasps are used to winning big games.

Nine times between 1998 and 2008, they went to Twickenham finals and came away with the spoils.

There is no trophy to lift after the final game of this season, but Wasps are about to discover whether that hard-nosed ruthlessness still lurks in their psyche when they need it most.

A victory against Newcastle at Adams Park on Saturday would consign the Falcons to the Championship, barring any eligibility issues with the team to replace them.

But a bonus-point win for Newcastle - or a losing margin for Wasps of 24 points - will send the hosts sinking towards the second tier instead, with many doubting they will ever resurface.

Former captain Lawrence Dallaglio has described it as "the most important game in Wasps' history".

So, how have Wasps gone from champions of Europe in 2007 to the verge of a potentially fatal relegation in just five years?

Off-the-pitch problems

With benefactor Chris Wright behind them and a west London location to attract foreign talent and an affluent fanbase, Wasps rode out the advent of professionalism in some style.

A decade of Wasps' regular season Premiership finishes

  • 2011-12: 11th*
  • 2010-11: 9th
  • 2009-10: 5th
  • 2008-09: 7th
  • 2007-08: 2nd
  • 2006-07: 5th
  • 2005-05: 4th
  • 2004-05: 2nd
  • 2003-04: 2nd
  • 2002-03: 2nd
  • * - with one game to go

But, despite the success on the pitch, the club have been searching for somewhere to settle down since the sale of its historical home at Sudbury in 1996.

It was hoped the club's current tenancy at Wycombe Wanderers' Adams Park ground would end with a new stadium, shared by both clubs.

Owner Steve Hayes' grand plan to bring his twin concerns together under one roof were dashed by the council in July however, and his subsequent attempts to sell a Wasps side with a rich past, but an uncertain future, have floundered.

"Even when we were winning doubles, European Cups and leagues, it was always a worry that we did not have our own stadium or any system in place to make decent revenue," former Wasps flanker Joe Worsley - who was forced to retire through injury earlier this season - told BBC Sport.

"The game has changed in those five years. The funding in France is phenomenal and other clubs in Britain are miles ahead of where we are now.

"You need your own stadium and your own facilities that people will enjoy going to and are prepared to spend money in. That is fundamentally the cause of where we are."

Wasps' tribulations took a lurid turn in April when it emerged Hayes had been arrested and bailed as part of an investigation into computer hacking.

"It becomes a bit tiresome talking about the other stuff. It has been something that has been hanging over us," admits coach Dai Young.

A generation coming to an end

Led by the relentless Dallaglio, the Wasps team of the mid-noughties contained some of the best battlers of their generation.

The pack, where the likes of Simon Shaw, Raphael Ibanez, Phil Vickery, Serge Betsen and Worsley also plied their trade, was ferocious in both action and reputation.

But that aura gradually faded, as wear and tear caught up with those figureheads.

Joe Worsley

Joe Worsley
  • Played over 300 times for Wasps after joining the academy in 1993
  • Won 73 England caps
  • Part of the 2003 World Cup-winning squad, and a replacement in the 2007 final defeat by South Africa

Dallaglio signed off with Wasps' most recent trophy - the 2008 Premiership final win over Leicester - but it has been in the last 18 months when Wasps have really struggled.

Vickery's career came to an end in October 2010 following a neck injury, while Betsen retired last summer and Shaw headed off for a swansong in Toulon.

Worsley and Dan Ward-Smith were named in this season's squad, but were forced to retire before making it on to the field in anger.

Another England veteran, Steve Thompson, fared only a little better - managing an hour of action - before finally succumbing to a neck injury while Riki Flutey has been sidelined for much of the campaign with an ankle injury and will return to New Zealand.

"They couldn't really prepare for my retirement because it came out of the blue," admits Worsley.

"It has just been a really weird year with serious injuries. If it wasn't for those I'm sure we would not be in the situation we are now."

The missing replacements

While the end of a host of players the wrong side of 30 was predictable, the retirement of one of English rugby's brightest prospects at 27 was less so.

Tom Rees captained England Under-21s and was widely expected to eventually take up the role for the senior side.

Instead his potential was stifled by a string of injuries, with knee ligament damage snuffing out his faint hopes of making a full comeback in March 2012.

He, along with James Haskell and Danny Cipriani, was supposed to assume the leadership mantle for the next generation of Wasps, but while Rees was stuck on the treatment table, Haskell and Cipriani departed overseas.

The likes of Joe Simpson and Dominic Waldouck are both developing talents, and Haskell, along with fellow England international Tom Palmer, is to return to the club next season, but it has not been the smooth transition that could have been imagined five years ago.

The missing spirit?

Former hooker Phil Greening believes the most fundamental reason behind Wasps' descent cannot be seen on the balance sheet or the playing roster, but lies in something less tangible.

Phil Greening

Phil Greening
  • Joined Wasps in March 2000 from Sale, retiring in October 2005
  • Won 24 England caps
  • Part of 1999 World Cup squad

"We have lost the essence of what it is to be Wasps," he told BBC Sport. "We had a group of players who wanted to play for each other and, even though we had so-called superstars, everyone was treated the same.

"You were well looked after, it was an enjoyable place, a hard-working place and everyone wanted to come and be associated with it.

"People would turn down higher money to be at Wasps. It is sad to see that being a Wasp is not that important to some people anymore.

"A lot of it was the management who did not understand what was there. There was a legacy, back to Nigel Melville's days and through Warren Gatland's years, and that did not really carry on.

"I think Dai Young has done a good job to get people back on the ground, but the damage was already done by the previous management."

Reasons to be cheerful

It is not all doom and gloom though.

Young talent like electric wing Christian Wade, who has scored 13 tries in 19 appearances this season, and 19-year-old centre Elliot Daly have made their mark.

The club have kept recruiting with Wales' Stephen Jones and Springbok number eight Ashley Johnson on board for next season, on contracts that may be funded by a consortium led by former player Ken Moss,  if rumours of an impending takeover prove true.

Remarkably, things could be worse.

With two minutes of their last match remaining, Bath's Sam Vesty waltzed through Wasps' defence only to indulge in some pre-tryline celebrations, unaware winger Tom Varndell was covering across at speed.

Vesty was held up, Wasps' crucial losing bonus-point was preserved and the task facing Newcastle on Saturday became considerably harder.