Stunning shocks, desperate rearguards and crushing victories: Ranking the best of the provinces’ European quarter-finals

This was supposed to be the day Leinster and Saracens met in the last eight of the Champions Cup.

What a game it would have been - the last two champions, a repeat of the final from last May, and a contest framed by the Sarries pay scandal and England's recent dominance of Ireland at a time when both countries are awash with representatives from the two clubs.

Stunning shocks, desperate rearguards and crushing victories: Ranking the best of the provinces’ European quarter-finals

So, in the absence of all that we've landed on the impossible and frankly foolhardy job of ranking the most notable quarter-final results claimed by the Irish provinces in the history of the European Cup.

Not an easy task given there's been 24 such wins in all.

It's the exact opposite of an exact science with individual games coloured for better or for worse by everything from venue, opposition strength, manner of victory, overall context and the passage of time.

Unfair? You bet. Are these things ever any other way?

It's an exercise littered with pitfalls.

Nostalgia can overwhelm the senses and yet recency bias is an equal threat to anything approaching fair-mindedness.

It's no surprise though that Munster provide half of our countdown.

That Ulster account for two might be open for debate.

That seven of those chosen were victories eked out on the road stands to reason given the tribal nature of sport and the realities of home advantage but finding other sections of common ground was more difficult.

The rugby landscape changed utterly over the two decades in question. Not to mention some of the rules and the European Cup itself. How can you really compare Ulster's defeat of Toulouse in 1999 with Leinster's masterclass against Saracens just two years ago?

You can't. You shouldn't. We did anyway.

Feel free to shake your head at the order, or at the omission of other great days. Ask us next weekend and our choices would likely look different too.

10) 2013/14: Munster 41-16 Toulouse, Thomond Park

Stunning shocks, desperate rearguards and crushing victories: Ranking the best of the provinces’ European quarter-finals

The apogee of the Rob Penney era, it's still weird to think that the Kiwi coach was Munster's ex-coach just a few months later. Toulouse were, as we know now, on a downward spiral but they were still Toulouse and they shipped six tries to the province on this day.

Peter O'Mahony was lost to a shoulder injury after 19 minutes but a replacement by the name of CJ Stander claimed one of the tries and the man of the match award to boot. The only surprise was that it took until the third quarter for Munster to translate their superiority onto the scoreboard.

9) 2011/12: Munster 16-22 Ulster, Thomond Park

Tommy O'Donnell, Munster, is tackled by Darren Cave, left, and Ian Humphreys, Ulster.
Tommy O'Donnell, Munster, is tackled by Darren Cave, left, and Ian Humphreys, Ulster.

Only the second, and last, Ulster quarter-final win in their history, this was impossible to leave out. The northern province travelled to Limerick with few expecting them to pull through against a side that had only ever lost once, to Leicester Tigers, at home in the history of the competition.

Brian McLaughlin's Ulster flew into a 19-0 lead after half-an-hour and held out against a ferocious red tide from there to the finish. An unlikely shot at a second title was put to bed by a ruthless Leinster side in the final in Twickenham.

8) 2008/09: Harlequins 5-6 Leinster: The Stoop

Jamie Heaslip, Leinster, celebrates after the final whistle.
Jamie Heaslip, Leinster, celebrates after the final whistle.

A game that will always be remembered as 'Bloodgate'.

It says everything about Leinster that they still managed to eke out a painfully tight and physical contest against a very good 'Quins outfit despite the hosts being reduced to employing such nefarious ways at the end.

Rocky Elsom, as was the case all that season, was sensationally good and two Felipe Contepomi penalties gave them a 6-0 lead. A Mike Brown try with 14 minutes left set up a bizarre and controversial end game but Leinster would end the campaign with a first title.

7) 2008/09: Munster 43-9 Ospreys, Thomond Park

Tomas O'Leary, Munster, is tackled by Marty Holah and Ryan Jones, Neath Swansea Ospreys
Tomas O'Leary, Munster, is tackled by Marty Holah and Ryan Jones, Neath Swansea Ospreys

A game and a performance diluted by the subsequent semi-final loss to Leinster at Croke Park but this performance and scoreline sent a shiver around the rest of Europe at the time. Reigning champions, Munster appeared ready to kick on to another level after it.

The Ospreys had no European pedigree but they were an exceptional collective replete with top-class talent up front and out the back where Tommy Bowe was operating. Munster claimed four tries and Ronan O'Gara contributed 17 points with a flawless kicking display.

6) 1998/99: Ulster 15-13 Toulouse, Ravenhill

A game overshadowed by the subsequent wins against Stade Francais and Colomiers that season, this was the first Irish quarter-final win in the history of the tournament and it came against a ridiculously talented Toulouse side chasing a second title.

Ulster went 9-0 up on a filthy Belfast evening but it took a desperate tackle from an injured David Humphreys late on to keep their grip on the spoils. Coach Harry Williams said afterwards that there was no reason why they couldn't go on and win the whole thing. He was right.

5) 2012/13: Harlequins 12-18 Munster, The Stoop

Peter O'Mahony, Munster, is tackled by Tom Casson, Harlequins
Peter O'Mahony, Munster, is tackled by Tom Casson, Harlequins

Some of the older heads were getting on and the younger brigade were still a bit green as Munster travelled to London to take on Conor O'Shea's Harlequins side so what followed was sensational and in keeping with the bery best of Munster's traditions.

The visitors had shipped 51 points to Glasgow only the week before and Paul O'Connell had spent more than half a year on the sidelines with injury but he spearheaded a top-class display from his pack in front of the watching British and Irish Lions management. Glorious.

4) 2017/18: Leinster 30-19 Saracens, Aviva Stadium

 Luke McGrath of Leinster during the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Leinster and Saracens
Luke McGrath of Leinster during the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Leinster and Saracens

Some said Sarries were vulnerable with players burnt out from club, country and Lions commitments but they were still an incredible side packed with class. The visitors actually dominated large tracts of the first-half in Dublin and only trailed 13-12 at half-time.

Leinster were clinical and physical and they added a sprinkle of individual magic to inflict a rare loss on a side that had won the previous two titles and would claim the next one too. A performance gilded by the fact Leo Cullen's side went on to claim a fourth star for the jersey.

3) 2001/02: Stade Francais 14-16 Munster, Stade Jean Bouin

 Anthony Horgan, Munster celebrates his try against Stade Francais with Rob Henderson.
Anthony Horgan, Munster celebrates his try against Stade Francais with Rob Henderson.

Such a strategic staging post in the forming of the Munster cult, this had everything we have come to associate with the province at the time: a filthy night, a period of superb, controlled rugby that established a 16-3 half-time lead and a determined late rearguard in front of the travelling army.

Stade had edged Munster by a point the year before and Munster would win another nail-biter in 2004, at the same stage of the competition in Limerick, but this was up there with their very best days in France and there have been more than a few of those.

2) 2002/03: Leicester Tigers 7-20 Munster, Welford Road

Jim Williams, Munster, is tackled by Darren Garforth, Leicester
Jim Williams, Munster, is tackled by Darren Garforth, Leicester

So much of Munster's legend in the early days of professionalism was written in France but this is up there with the best quarter-final wins of any Irish side in the competition. Leicester had lost at home just twice in the previous five years and they had won the previous two European Cups.

And this was the sweetest possible revenge for the province having been denied by the Tigers and the infamous 'Hand of Back' in the final the year before. Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer claimed their two tries and Leicester coach Dean Richards described Munster’s overall display as “outstanding”.

1) 2005/06: Toulouse 35-41 Leinster, Stade Municipal

Stunning shocks, desperate rearguards and crushing victories: Ranking the best of the provinces’ European quarter-finals

Toulouse hadn't lost in 19 games on home soil. No-one had bettered them in the Pink City in European competition in six seasons. They were the reigning champions and overwhelming favourites against a side that had so often flattered to deceive. Ladyboys, remember?

Leinster scored four tries and held two big leads before being pegged back to six points. It was an epic display that prompted thoughts of a first final although coach Michael Cheika was far more circumspect afterwards, He was right to be, Munster had their number the next day.

The full list:

    Munster:
  • 1999/2000: 27-10 v Stade Francais, Thomond Park
  • 2000/01: 38-29 v Biarritz, Thomond Park
  • 2001/02: 16-14 v Stade Francais, Stade Jean Bouin
  • 2002/03: 20-7 v Leicester Tigers, Welford Road
  • 2003/04: 37-32 v Stade Francais, Thomond Park
  • 2005/06: 19-10 v Perpignan, Lansdowne Road
  • 2007/08: 16-3 v Gloucester, Kingsholm
  • 2008/09: 43-9 v Ospreys, Thomond Park
  • 2009/10: 33-19 v Northampton Saints, Thomond Park
  • 2012/13: 18-12 v Harlequins, The Stoop
  • 2013/14: 47-23 v Toulouse, Thomond Park
  • 2016/17: 41-16 v Toulouse, Thomond Park
  • 2017/18: 20-19 v Toulon, Thomond Park
  • 2018/19: 17-13 v Edinburgh, BT Murrayfield
  • Leinster:
  • 2002/03: 18-13 v Biarritz, Lansdowne Road
  • 2005/06: 41-35 v Toulouse, Stade Municipal
  • 2008/09: 6-5 v Harlequins: The Stoop
  • 2009/10: 29-28 v Clermont: RDS
  • 2010/11: 17-10 v Leicester Tigers, Aviva Stadium
  • 2011/12: 34-3 v Cardiff, Aviva Stadium
  • 2014/15: 18-15 v Bath, Aviva Stadium
  • 2016/17: 32-17 v Wasps, Aviva Stadium
  • 2017/18: 30-19 v Saracens, Aviva Stadium
  • 2018/19: 21-18 v Ulster, Aviva Stadium
  • Ulster:
  • 1997/98: 15-13 v Toulouse, Ravenhill
  • 2011/12: 22-16 v Munster, Thomond Park

More on this topic

RFU chief Bill Sweeney says rugby union could become a summer sportRFU chief Bill Sweeney says rugby union could become a summer sport

Amateur players must wait as IRFU outline return to rugby detailsAmateur players must wait as IRFU outline return to rugby details

Simon Zebo desperate as ever to land that elusive European titleSimon Zebo desperate as ever to land that elusive European title

Irish provinces enter three-week summer break hoping for PRO14 clarityIrish provinces enter three-week summer break hoping for PRO14 clarity


More in this Section

Anthony Joshua wears ‘precautionary’ knee brace at Black Lives Matter marchAnthony Joshua wears ‘precautionary’ knee brace at Black Lives Matter march

Coronavirus wrap: Matchday protocols emerge while Djokovic casts US Open doubtsCoronavirus wrap: Matchday protocols emerge while Djokovic casts US Open doubts

Bayern Munich continue march to Bundesliga title with comeback win at LeverkusenBayern Munich continue march to Bundesliga title with comeback win at Leverkusen

Silverstone boss hopes ‘top of the bill’ F1 double-header can attract new fansSilverstone boss hopes ‘top of the bill’ F1 double-header can attract new fans


Lifestyle

Maintain your colour until you can finally get back to your hairdresser.How to keep dyed hair looking fresh at home

The calendar for upcoming sales is filling up nicely as auctioneers adapt, says Des O’SullivanAntiques: No shortage of online opportunities to collect

More From The Irish Examiner