WITH THE HEINEKEN Cup seemingly heading into its final season as we know it, now is as good a time as any to look back on some of its greatest days.
The power brokers in England and France would happily see the competition die, but have they paused to think about what the fans want? Supporters in the stadiums and watching on TV make the Heineken Cup the thrilling event it is, and they haven’t been heard in this entire farce.
The Irish provinces have contributed more than anyone to the Heineken Cup and we have enjoyed some incredible days thanks to their inspiring efforts. Everyone will have their own favourite games in the tournament that began in 1995.
Here are a few of our unforgettable choices involving the Irish teams, and four reasons the Heineken Cup should be salvaged.
The miracle match: Munster 33-6 Gloucester at Thomond Park, 2003
No one gave Munster a hope before this one. Needing to win by four clear tries and 27 points against England’s premier club at the time, there seemed little chance that Munster could pull off a miracle victory and qualify for the quarter-finals.
What followed will forever be remembered as one of rugby’s greatest and most incredible escapes. John Kelly, Mossie Lawlor and Mick O’Driscoll all scored tries as the Munster faithful started to believe.
Ronan O’Gara added three penalties and a conversion to put his side within touching distance, before Kelly crossed for his second try in the 80th minute. ROG’s conversion sealed the win by a margin of exactly 27 points and by four tries to nil. It literally couldn’t have been written.
YouTube credit: Conor Ryan
The comeback: Leinster 33-22 Northampton at the Millennium Stadium, 2011
Leinster had played some superb rugby to beat Leicester and Toulouse in the preceding knock-out stages to reach their second final. But on the big day, a ferocious first half effort from the Northampton Saints left Joe Schmidt’s men 22-6 down at the break.
That’s when Jonny Sexton stepped in. The outhalf delivered a rousing speech in the changing-room during half-time, convincing his teammates that they could pull off one of the most memorable comebacks in Heineken Cup history.
Back on the pitch, Sexton followed up on his own words with a masterclass in the second half, scoring two tries, three conversions and a penalty to haul Leinster to a remarkable 33-22 victory.
YouTube credit: ForwardFlanker
The upset: Connacht 22-14 Biarritz at The Sportsground, 2012
Since getting an invite to the party in 2011, Connacht have been Heineken Cup minnows. Four wins in 12 games is not the best return, but there is one triumph which stands above the rest.
In December of last year, the western province pulled off a memorable shock by beating former French giants Biarritz in front of a fervent Galway crowd. 17 points from the boot of Dan Parks and a Fetu’u Vainikolo try made the difference for Eric Elwood’s men.
Even more impressive were the contributions of the younger members of the side like Dave McSharry and Robbie Henshaw. Connacht fans hope for many more nights like this one in the future.
YouTube credit: Ballboll81
The first Irish trophy: Ulster 21-6 Colomiers at Lansdowne Road, 1999
While Leinster and Munster have gone on to create greater Heineken Cup legacies, it was Ulster who first put Ireland on the European map. The English clubs sat this one out, but the Ulstermen still had to beat Toulouse and Stade Français on the way to the final.
Facing them was a Colomiers side that included the likes of Fabien Galthié and current Racing Metro coach Laurent Labit. Ulster proved far too strong though, with a David Humphreys try and six penalties from the reliable boot of Simon Mason doing the damage.
Ulster didn’t return to the final of the Heineken Cup final until 2012, but the signs in recent years are that they can be consistent challengers for the top European club honours. It remains to be seen which competition they are part of.
YouTube credit: Trc1188
This is by no means a definitive list of the great Heineken Cup games, so leave a comment with your own memories and favourite games…