The Premiership rugby final: 20 years in the making

Why the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final on 18 June 2022 promises to be the most historic day in the rugby calendar

Lawrence Dallaglio won with Wasps, England and the British and Irish Lions, so when he says, as he did recently, the Premiership final is special we should probably all sit up and take notice.

Dallaglio would say that wouldn’t he? He won four finals as a player, was never beaten in one and Wasps were the first club to really master the concept of the play-offs. This Saturday’s game at Twickenham, between Leicester and Saracens, is the 20th Premiership final and the highlight of the English season. The weather is (normally) decent, the crowd is made up not just of fans from the two competing teams, and it has thrown up some thrillers over the years. 

Think of Alex Waller’s 100th minute try which won the 2014 final for Northampton against Saracens. Dan Hipkiss’ late winner for Leicester, also against Saracens, in 2010. Or Gareth Steenson’s 98th minute penalty which won it for Exeter, for the first time, in 2017. It is English rugby’s big day out and most fans walk away having had a great afternoon watching the two best teams in the Premiership slug it out. But when the idea of the title winner being decided by a one-off match was introduced in 2003 it was not universally popular.

Twickenham prepares to host the highlight of the rugby calendar

Generally, new ideas in rugby union take a bit of time to be accepted. The play-off system was no exception, but the knock-out format is now thought of as being fairer on teams who might have players away with England during the season, when the Premiership is being played. There were play-offs before 2003, of course, but the league winner used to be the team who had topped the table at the end of the season.

There had been a proposal that the winners of an eight-team end of season knock-out format would be declared the champions, but fans objected and it was kicked into touch until 2003. Their view was the winners should be the team who had slugged it out in all weathers for the entire season to become top of the pile. 

Nowadays, when the regular season ends the team in the top slot hosts the team in fourth and the team in second hosts the team in third. Hence this season Northampton had to visit Leicester and Harlequins had a trip up the road to Saracens. In 2003, the top team had to play the winner of a match between those in second and third place to decide who got to lift the trophy. And Warren Gatland, Dallaglio’s director of rugby at Wasps, had a plan. Gatland’s idea was to get his side into the top three at peak fitness and back them to win the semi-final and then topple whoever had led the table, and who would have had a blank weekend when the one semi was being played.

It is rugby’s age old argument about whether being rested or being battle-hardened by games is better for players heading into a big match. Gatland had the answer – he had come from the southern hemisphere where play-offs were the norm and his assistant at Wasps, Shaun Edwards, had come from rugby league which had had the system for years. When the 22 rounds of the league had been played, Gloucester were 15 points ahead of Wasps, who were second, five points ahead of Northampton.  

The last games had been played on 10 May, Wasps dispatched Northampton 19-10 in the semi-final at Adams Park, on 17 May, and a week later won the Challenge Cup, in Europe, beating Bath 48-30 at Reading’s Madejski Stadium. They headed to Twickenham for the showdown with Gloucester on 31 May, with two high-octane knock-out games under their belts.

Gloucester, meanwhile, had not played for three weeks. And it showed as they were beaten 39-3 by Wasps, in front of 42,000 spectators at Twickenham. Gatland had been vindicated. Wasps performed the same trick for the next two seasons, finishing six points behind Bath in 2004 before beating them in the final, and in 2005, finishing five points behind Leicester and ruining Martin Johnson’s farewell by overcoming them 39-14 at HQ.

By 2006, the semi-finals were in the format we know now but Wasps, who finished fourth, could not repeat their tricks of the previous three years and Sale, captained by Jason Robinson, knocked them out. Sale then won the final 45-20 against Leicester and with 58,000 in attendance the concept of a grand final was catching on. Sale had topped the table that year but, as in the previous three seasons, the next 15 campaigns would prove that being at the head of the league is no guarantee of winning the trophy.

In the 19 years of the Premiership final so far, the team that has been top of the table has won the title just six times and Gloucester fans have every reason to be wary of the knock-out stages. Their team would have been crowned champions if the play-offs had not existed in 2003, 2007 and 2008 and they failed to win it on every occasion.

Harlequins lift the Gallagher Premiership Trophy in 2021

Last season, Harlequins did an impression of Dallaglio’s Wasps by finishing fourth before stunning Bristol in the semi-finals. Then, in one of the most memorable of all finals, sadly in front of just 10,000 fans because of Covid restrictions, they beat the reigning champions Exeter 40-38. A year before, Exeter had won their second title, beating Wasps 19-10, in front of exactly no-one as the game was being played behind closed doors (and in a rainy October, because of the pandemic).

Happily, Premiership Rugby are expecting around 70,000 this weekend and who we’ll see lift the trophy is anyone’s guess. Here, again, are the two best teams in the league. Saracens have won the title five times but only finished top of the table once amongst that, in 2016, and Leicester have won two of their four titles since 2003 after leading at the close of the regular season, in 2009 and 2010. It might be too close to call but it will definitely be special. Just ask Lawrence Dallaglio.

Tickets for the Premiership rugby final at Twickenham are available here.