Since rugby history was made when Romania’s Farul Constanta played eventual winners Toulouse in the first ever pool match, the Heineken Cup has produced some of the most breathtaking moments in the sport.gives us his top 25
EMILE NTAMACK LIFTS THE TROPHY FOR THE FIRST TIME
Toulouse were inaugural winners of a 12-club competition that had begun three months earlier on the shores of the Black Sea.
They had kicked off the Heineken Cup in Romania, hammering Farul Constanta 54-10. In the first final, on January 7, 1996, they met Cardiff, at the Arms Park and in a sign of things to come, it was Toulouse that emerged strongest, edging out the home side after extra time. When captain Emile Ntamack raised the cup aloft that day he was kick-starting Toulouse’s early European dominance.
Viars Makes His Mark
Brive v Leicester, 1997 final Back to Cardiff and Brive, captained by fly-half Alain Penaud, were altogether less glamorous than Toulouse but enjoyed a comprehensive 28-9 win highlighted by a brilliant sixth-minute try from full-back Sebastien Viars.
It was a storming carry from Polish No.8 Gregory Kacala that set up his backs. Penaud sent the ball wide and Viars collected on halfway, dancing down the left wing through a trio of missed tackles, the letters rather than numbers on the Leicester jerseys spelling trouble for the Tigers as Viars scored one of the great Heineken Cup final tries.
ULSTER BLAZE THE TRAIL FOR IRELAND
It took four years for an Irish province to reach the final and Ulster turning that feat into a greater one at the first attempt at Lansdowne Road. Few had fancied them but they had beaten Toulouse in both the pool and the quarter-final then seen off Stade Francais in the semi, all at Ravenhill.
Colomiers were another huge obstacle to surmount but legend has it that Ulster struck a psychological blow when they ran straight through the opposition’s warm-up on their lap back to the dressing rooms.
The die was cast, full-back Simon Mason kicked six penalties and David Humphreys a drop goal as Ulster were crowned champions with a 21-6 win.
HEALEY’S STAR TURN IN PARIS
The Tigers, English champions already that season, finally cracked Europe with a stirring 34-30 victory over the Parisians at Stade de France.
It was a formidable Leicester team but it had been Stade fly-half Diego Dominguez who had dominated the final, kicking all his side’s points with nine penalties and a drop goal. Tigers’ kicker Tim Stimpson and tries from Leon Lloyd and Neil Back kept them in the hunt and Austin Healey’s switch late on from scrum-half to fly-half sparked a stunning come from behind win, his break through the middle setting up Lloyd for a last-minute winner.
THE HAND OF BACK
Munster had let victory slip from their grasp two years earlier and their second final appearance brought more agony, this time tinged by injustice.
They trailed Leicester, the defending champions, 15-9 at the Millennium Stadium but when they won a scrum in a strong attacking position, there was a shot at a comeback with the Irish front row on top. Peter Stringer fed the ball in only to see Tigers flanker Neil Back flick the ball onto the Leicester side. It was a masterful deception that escaped the notice of referee Joel Jutge and his linesman.
THE MIRACLE MATCH
Having lost two finals and a semi-final in the previous three seasons, Munster were the nearly men of the Heineken Cup but this game helped cement their legendary status in the competition.
Having lost on the road to Gloucester and Perpignan, Munster needed to defeat Gloucester in the final pool game at Thomond Park by 27 points with at least four tries to claim the bonus point necessary to pip the English club to second place behind Perpignan and a place in the quarter-finals as a best runner-up.
On a feverish afternoon in Limerick, they did just that, scoring four tries and winning 33-6, 27 points the margin.
LEOTA STEALS VICTORY OVER MUNSTER
Another extraordinary staging post for Munster in Europe with a heartbreaking defeat in an epic contest with Warren Gatland’s Wasps.
This was a fifth successive semi for Munster but they lost Ronan O’Gara to injury on 30 minutes, Jason Holland moving to fly-half.
Wasps led 17-15 at the break before Munster stormed into a 10-point lead with tries from Anthony Foley and Jim Williams with 15 minutes to go.
Back came Wasps with the killer blow, Samoan hooker Trevor Leota barging over in the corner to shatter Munster’s European dream for another season.
HOWLEY STUNS TOULOUSE
Having seen off Munster in the semis, Wasps set up a Twickenham final with Toulouse that was every bit as pulsating at their Lansdowne Road encounter in the previous round. This went down to the wire as the clock ticked towards the 80-minute mark and scrum-half Rob Howley sent a grubber kick down the wing towards Toulouse full-back Clement Poitrenaud. Poitrenaud attempted to usher the ball into touch but the chasing Howley had other ideas and with a favourable bounce, the Welsh number nine got his hand on it to touch down and grab victory for the Londoners.
It ended with a standing ovation for the Irish province at Le Stadium, a rare feat indeed but totally deserved after a rampaging display of running rugby as Leinster marched into the semi-finals with a four-try display in a memorable 41-35 win. Brian O’Driscoll’s try was the opener for the Blues and the pick of the quartet.
Leinster struck off lineout ball in their own half, Felipe Contepomi went flat to the line to pass inside to Shane Horgan then was on hand to collect the return and set up O’Driscoll on a searing line en route to under the posts. Scintillating stuff.
A BIG-SCREEN BOOST FROM HOME
The Red Army descended in their thousands on Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for the 2006 final while another 15,000 crammed into Limerick’s O’Connell Street to watch the game on a 45sq metre screen. Little did they know they would play a pivotal part in the proceedings over in Wales as twice during critical moments of the second half, as Munster held narrow leads, Sky Sports’ broadcast from O’Connell Street was relayed onto the stadium’s giant screens.
The rest, of course, is history. Munster held on for a famous 23-19 win to finally reach the promised land. But not before Biarritz sent in a formal complaint to the competition organisers at the “unfair advantage” given to the Irish province during the closing stages.
As for that historic Munster victory, it was scrum-half Peter Stringer who made the difference in delivering the moment that would lead to the province’s long-awaited first Heineken Cup success. Four years on from the Hand of Back, Stringer had the last laugh at a scrum. With the scores level at 10-10, the number nine saw opposition scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili away from his post and fixed on a blindside gap in the Biarritz defensive line, catching the French side napping and scampering over unopposed for Munster’s second try of the game.
Ronan O’Gara’s conversion gave Munster a 17-10 half-time lead and two second-half penalties sealed the deal. Munster were kings of Europe at last.
The lowlight in the annals of an otherwise glorious trip down European club rugby’s memory lane. As a tight quarter-final reached its conclusion, Leinster led 6-5 at The Stoop with a penalty the likely match-winner. Quins’ kicking ace Nick Evans was off injured, the clock was ticking, and they needed him back on. A blood injury to wing Tom Williams was the opportunity but it transpired his cut lip was not a cut at all, the claret coming from a fake blood capsule to engineer the replacement.
CARDIFF LOSE A PENALTY SHOOT-OUT
With the game finishing 26-26 after extra-time at the Millennium Stadium, the only means left to separate the teams was a penalty shoot-out. This was a first in the professional game and with each side taking alternate kicks from the centre of the 22-metre line. With six successful kicks apiece the game’s fate rested on two back-row forwards. Leicester’s Jordan Crane slotted his and Cardiff, Wales and Lions star Martyn Williams was the poor unfortunate whose miss sent the Tigers through to the final.
THE TABLES TURN
Is there a more iconic image of a changing of the guard in sport than rising fly-half Johnny Sexton standing over Ronan O’Gara and shouting in the face of the Munster legend? Rog was far from done, of course, but that day in Croke Park saw Leinster take over the mantle of leading Irish light in Europe as they dismantled the defending champions in front of a then world-record crowd for a club game, 82,208 This was a landmark moment in Leinster’s rise to a first European title, Gordon D’Arcy scoring the opening try, which Sexton celebrated at O’Gara’s expense having replaced an injured Felipe Contepomi, in a 25-6 victory.
LEINSTER MAKE THE BREAKTHROUGH
Having beaten Munster at Croker, Leinster moved onto to Murrayfield for the decider and met another European heavyweight in the shape of two-time champions Leicester Tigers, bidding to match Toulouse’s hat-trick of Heineken Cup victories.
Instead it would be the day Leinster became the third Irish province to lift the Heineken Cup in a season which saw Ireland claim their first Grand Slam in 61 years.
It took a second-half fightback to seal the deal for Michael Cheika’s side, which had trailed 13-9 at the break having had prop Stan Wright sin-binned after taking the lead through drop goals from Brian O’Driscoll and a monster kick from Johnny Sexton.
A Julian Dupuy penalty just after the break stretched the Tigers lead to 16-9 before a Jamie Heaslip try and Sexton’s conversion and then penalty pushed the province towards victory, Leo Cullen lifting the trophy at the expense of his old club.
TOULOUSE MAKE IT FOUR
Already established as the aristocrats of European rugby, Guy Noves’ team rubber-stamped their status with a record fourth Heineken Cup success in the competition’s 15th year, winning a tense all-Top14 final at Stade de France.
David Skrela, a runner-up with Colomiers to Ulster in 1999, kicked 15 of his side’s points, Florian Fritz the other six as Toulouse, inaugural winners and victors in 2003 and 05 added a fourth star to the jerseys and became European history makers.
O’GARA CROWNED TOURNAMENT’S BEST
Having reached its 15th anniversary, the Heineken Cup marked its milestone with a prestigious European Player Award 1995-2000. For competition graced by some of the game’s legends, the honour was not lost on the recipient as Munster’s Ronan O’Gara was named the competition’s cream of the crop and said he was completely overwhelmed by the accolade.
O’Gara’s two wins with his home province had come in 2006 and 08 and he was the tournament’s leading points scorer up to 2010, a position he still maintains six years after retirement, his total of 1365 giving him a 588-point lead over nearest active rival Owen Farrell.
SEXTON STUNS SAINTS
The champagne was on ice for Saints in Cardiff as they went marching into a 22-6 half-time lead but Leinster and their talismanic fly-half Johnny Sexton had other ideas.
The Ireland number 10 dragged his team back into the contest with two quick tries at the start of the second half and as the Leinster pack began to get the better of their English rivals, Saints capitulated, conceding 27 unanswered points as. Joe Schmidt landed a European title in his first season as a head coach.
O’GARA’S LATE LATE SHOW
More misery at the hands of an Irish province for Northampton as the previous season’s beaten finalists succumbed to a piece of brilliantly executed Munster magic under the Thomond Park lights.
Trailing 20-21 with less than three minutes of normal time on the clock, Munster were staring a rare European home defeat in the face. A remarkable 40 phases of possession later and that man O’Gara dropped into the pocket to launch the match-winning drop-goal, four minutes past the 80-minute mark. Staggering.
AN ALL-IRISH AFFAIR
After five Heineken Cup victories for Irish provinces in the previous 13 seasons, an all-Irish final was perhaps an inevitability and it came in 2012 at Twickenham. Ulster had upset Munster at Thomond Park in the quarters and beaten another surprise package in Edinburgh in a home semi at the Aviva Stadium. Leinster had to come through a titanic away semi against Clermont in Bordeaux to book their ticket to the final and having overcome the mother of all obstacles the defending champions were not to be denied a successful defence under Joe Schmidt.
Always in control, Leinster were inspired by a powerhouse performance from Sean O’Brien, who scored the first of five tries in a dominant 42-14 victory..
CONNACHT CAUSE A SHOCK
In their third season in Europe, the West really awoke as Connacht upset Toulouse in their Stade Ernest-Wallon stronghold with a famous 16-14 victory, their first in France. It was also the first time the four-time champions had lost at home in Europe since 2009 and Connacht’s victory was entirely deserved.
A try from man of the match Kieran Marmion early in the second half augmented 11 points from the boot of fly-half Dan Parks and gave the visitors some separation on the scoreboard, only for the European heavyweights to strike back through their pack, back-rower Thierry Dusautoir driven over for a try converted by Lionel Beauxis to make it a two-point game.
But Connacht held firm in the closing 15 minutes to secure one of the biggest shocks in Heineken Cup history.
WILKINSON GOES OUT A CHAMPION
Jonny Wilkinson stellar career ended on the sweetest of notes as the man who scored the drop goal that secured England’s World Cup in 2003 added a European title to his honour roll as Toulon landed back-to-back titles with a 23-6 victory over Saracens in Cardiff.
Toulon had knocked out both Leinster and Munster in successive rounds in defence of their first title, enabled by the spending power of club president Mourad Boudjellal. Saracens threatened to be another stiff challenge but the Galacticos had too much for the English giants and Wilkinson was front and centre at fly-half, contributing two penalties, two conversions and, inevitably, a drop goal in his last European game before retirement.
THE DAY AFTER AXEL’S FUNERAL
No-one really knew which way this game would go as Munster ran out at Thomond Park less than 24 hours after burying their head coach and former captain Anthony Foley.
Axel had died in Paris the weekend before on the day his team was meant to start the pool campaign against Racing but six days later, back in Limerick, the men in red paid him the perfect tribute by hammering Glasgow out the gate, 38-17 on a day of raw emotion.
And you could hear a pin drop in the stands as the team formed a post-match huddle with Foley’s young sons and belted out Stand Up And Fight with feeling for their fallen hero.
SARRIES HIT THEIR STRIDE
That Munster reached the last four at all in the wake of Foley’s death was nothing short miraculous but in Saracens they came up against a team at the peak of its powers.
At a sold-out Aviva Stadium, the English powerhouse put in a performance few teams could have lived with as they broke the game wide open either side of half-time, snuffing out any Munster threat in attack and getting a firm stranglehold on this contest to win 26-10.
The defending champions booked a return to the final and successfully defended their crown at Clermont’s expense.
NACEWA KICKS THE WINNING PENALTY
In the Basque stronghold of the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao, Leinster won this clash of rugby cultures as their largely home-grown side overcame the expensively-assembled Racing 92 to equal Toulouse’s record of four European titles.
It was a tryless game in the rain with Johnny Sexton landing three penalties before handing over goal-kicking duties to veteran team-mate and captain Isa Nacewa, in his final season before retirement. And it was Nacewa who led from the front, kicking the final two penalties nervelessly to seal a 15-12 victory and bow out in style.