Leicester Tigers aim to hunt down an unprecedented treble on Sunday when they face Wasps in an all-English Heineken European Cup final at Twickenham. The Tigers have claimed two domestic trophies in Twickenham finals this season, beating Ospreys in the EDF Energy Anglo-Welsh Cup last month and Gloucester in the Guinness Premiership last week. Now they face their most consistent home rivals in pursuit of an achievement some are sure to proclaim the greatest ever by a club team.
Club achievement is an ever-fluctuating currency. The slow development of competitions means it is very hard to make the comparions enabled by football’s long history of leagues and cup finals. England’s rugby cup was launched exactly 100 years after its football equivalent, its league a mere 99 years after. European competition came to the oval-ball game a little more rapidly, only 41 years after football’s first European Cup.
One reason why Leicester’s treble would be unprecedented is that this is only the 10th season in which it has been possible. For much of the club game’s history, there were no trophies to win. The Harlequins teams of Adrian Stoop before the first world war and Wavell Wakefield after, and fine teams from Bristol and Gloucester, had no trophies to show for their best years. The Coventry team of the 1960s had to transmogrify into Warwickshire, with a sprinkling of players from other clubs, to win seven county titles in eight years.
The same goes for Welsh immortals. Swansea were unbeaten from December 1903 to October 1905, Newport had several unbeaten seasons and Cardiff towered over the years after the second world war. They at least had the chance to play touring teams – Swansea lost to the inaugural All Blacks only by a freak drop goal, while Cardiff’s win in 1953 was a little after that era’s peak.
When competition did belatedly arrive Llanelli won four consecutive Welsh Cups in the 1970s while a remarkable Bath team’s domination of the English game for a decade culminated in league and cup doubles in 1989 and 1994.
Neither team, though, had the chance to play in Europe. When the Heineken was launched in 1996, Toulouse immediately set the mark Leicester are aiming to exceed by winning the Cup plus a domestic championship. No French team has yet emulated them, and a treble has become an impossibility with the abandonment of the Yves du Manoir knock-out competition, effectively displaced from the schedules by the Heineken.
They have been emulated by Leicester in 2001 and 2002, followed by Wasps in 2004. Neither, though, was able to take the English cup.
Wasps are undoubtedly formidable big-match opponents. Players such as Lawrence Dallaglio – still proclaiming England ambitions – Joe Worsley, Josh Lewsey and Alex King have invariably delivered for them when it matters.
They have won only one of their last 11 meetings with Leicester – including two epic group stage Heineken clashes two seasons back – but the exception was the only final, their 39-14 Premiership final win two years ago.
Leicester’s trademark this year has been to produce when it matters – in the Heineken away to Munster, in a devastating first-half against Ospreys, the Heineken semi-final against Llanelli and the Premiership demolition of Gloucester.
Alesana Tuilagi and Seru Rabeni offer power out wide and Dan Hipkiss a veteran’s head on a youngster’s body at centre in a back division feasting on the winnings of a tough, plug-ugly pack among whom Martin Corry offers proof that it is possible to be both an unyielding rugby warrior and an engaging human being.
Best ever? That is a title to be won over several seasons rather than one, but win or lose, this Tigers team have set a single-season standard for others to aspire to.