Friday 19 December 2014

Top 10 Irish moments of the Heineken Cup

Published 24/05/2014 | 02:30

Johnny Sexton gets the ball rolling for Leinster in the 2011 final
Johnny Sexton gets the ball rolling for Leinster in the 2011 final
Peter Stringer sneaks in for Munster in 2006
Connacht celebrate victory over Toulouse
Munster's Ronan O'Gara jumps the advertising boards after scoring against leinster.

Ahead of the last Heineken Cup final, Ruaidhri O'Connor picks his standout moments from Europe's elite competition

1 – JOHNNY SO GOOD

Leinster 33 Northampton Saints 22

Millennium Stadium, May 21, 2011

After 40 minutes, Leinster looked less like a dynasty than a one-hit wonder. The 2009 champions had been battered by Northampton, beaten up in the scrum and, trailing by 16 points at half-time, they looked down and out as the Saints fans celebrated.

Deep beneath the Millennium Stadium stands, scrum coach Greg Feek gathered the front-row around for a live video analysis session, Joe Schmidt changed up his back-row, before Jonathan Sexton rallied the troops with references to Liverpool's heroics on an Istanbul night six years previous.

What followed was the greatest final comeback in Heineken Cup history, with Sexton inspiring Leinster to a stunning recovery as they blew the English side away on the resumption.

From down and out, they were suddenly two-time champions and Schmidt's stock would go through the roof from that first season on.

"It's one you will want to look back on in 15 years and go, 'that was a good day'," Brian O'Driscoll said in the aftermath. "If you can come back from being down, from where we were, there's something special in that."

2 – SNEAKING STRINGER GETS BRIDESMAIDS UP THE AISLE

Munster 23 Biarritz 19

Millennium Stadium, May 20, 2006

The long wait had to end some time; every journey must have a destination.

Munster's odyssey was more arduous than most, but that made the outpouring of joy in the Cardiff stands and the Limerick streets all the more memorable.

In one moment, the lingering feelings from the lost final in 2000, the 'Hand of Back', the semi-final heartaches in Lille and Lansdowne Road were all washed away in the Welsh capital.

It wasn't one-way traffic by any means. Sireli Bobo's early dance down the touchline temporarily silenced the red masses who hugely outnumbered the Basques, but then Peter Stringer shaped to go open, before slipping down the blindside vacated by the big Fijian wing to gleefully touch down.

Trevor Halstead crossed in the second half, while the boot of Ronan O'Gara guided them home.

They were destiny's team, even if destiny refused to recognise them for the first half of the decade, but the long wait made it all the sweeter.

"If goodwill was ever going to win this competition, this was the one it was going to win," Declan Kidney surmised – and he wasn't wrong.

3 – RUGBY'S ALL-IRELAND SEMI-FINAL

Munster 6 Leinster 25

Croke Park, May 2, 2009

Each summer, Croke Park hosts occasions of colourful drama infused with local and national rivalries that capture the country's imagination, but in 2009 rugby got in on the act when Munster drew Leinster in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup.

With Lansdowne Road still under reconstruction, the GAA's headquarters got the gig for an unforgettable spectacle witnessed by 82,208 fans in glorious technicolour.

Losing Felipe Contepomi to a knee injury allowed Sexton take centre stage and he never looked back from his first penalty, kicking off his long-running rivalry with O'Gara with a roar.

O'Driscoll's intercept try helped to further eradicate Leinster's bad memories of their meeting two years previously.

They would go on to lift the trophy for the first time by beating Leicester Tigers three weeks later, but their settling of a local score was key to that success.

4 – MIRACLE MATCH

Munster 33 Gloucester 6

Thomond Park, January 18, 2003

O'Gara may not have known how important it was to ice the cake in the dying stages of a remarkable night in Limerick, but it couldn't have taken him long to realise.

Munster needed a miracle – hence the name – a 27-point swing with a bonus point included against the English Premiership leaders to make the quarter-finals.

What followed has gone down alongside the 1978 win over the All Blacks in the annals.

Tries from Mick O'Driscoll, Mossie Lawlor and John Kelly set up the grandstand finish, with winger Kelly producing an injury-time try to secure the fifth point. They still needed the conversion, even if O'Gara "hadn't a clue" of its importance.

He nailed it anyway, confirming the miracle and sending Munster onwards.

5 – THE TWICKENHAM TAKEOVER

Leinster 42 Ulster 14

Twickenham, May 19, 2012

We didn't know it then, but this was to prove the zenith for Irish provincial rugby in the Heineken Cup.

An all-Irish final seemed the most normal thing in the world, with Ulster having beaten Munster at Thomond Park to cement their credentials as contenders for the first time since 1999.

Just last week, Johann Muller was lamenting the timing of their run for they were to meet a Leinster team at the height of their powers on a day when Twickenham turned white and blue and the home of English rugby became Irish for a day.

Leinster joined Europe's elite as three-time and successive winners, as Schmidt's team gave an all-singing, all-dancing display of their wares with tries from four forwards coming from the New Zealander's brilliant patterns.

Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Sean Cronin and Heinke van der Merwe crossed for an emphatic and memorable win.

"It's a hell of an achievement for this bunch of men," Schmidt said.

6 – RED LETTER DAY AT LANSDOWNE

Leinster 6 Munster 30

Lansdowne Road, April 23, 2006

It may have been a home game in their home city, but Leinster emerged to an altogether different Lansdowne Road on this April day in 2006 and they left the stadium not knowing what had hit them.

Michael Cheika's team had just beaten Toulouse away, but they got a lesson in how far they needed to go a couple of weeks later as Munster took over Lansdowne Road and their back-row ruled the roost.

O'Gara orchestrated events from behind a dominant scrum and the day was summed up when he brushed Malcolm O'Kelly off en route to scoring his try underneath a red south terrace.

7 – MUNSTER EMERGE AS REAL CONTENDERS

Toulouse 25 Munster 31

Stade Lescure, May 6, 2000

As complete a display as Munster ever gave in their storied history saw them dismiss the kingpins on a boiling hot day in Bordeaux, with O'Gara's length-of-the-field try still one of the great European scores.

They, by their own admission, showed Toulouse too much respect for the first 40, but recognising the French side wilting in the heat, Keith Wood led the charge in a second half where they scored 20 points that left their large travelling support in dreamland.

"When I say you dream of days like today, that's what you actually do," Kidney said. "Just to be part of it was brilliant.

8 - ULSTER'S DAY IN THE SUN

Ulster 21 Colomiers 6

Lansdowne Road, January 30, 1999

The 1999 Heineken Cup may come with an asterisk because of the English teams' withdrawal from that year's tournament, but Ulster should not be begrudged their triumph at Lansdowne Road.

It wasn't a classic, but January finals were never a good idea and the huge crowd who made the foray south of the border didn't care as the combined boots of David Humphreys and Simon Mason kicked them home.

9 - MUNSTER MAKE IT A DOUBLE

Munster 16 Toulouse 13

Millennium Stadium, May 24, 2008

Two forces of European rugby collided at their peaks as Munster returned to Cardiff to claim a second title in three years against the kingpins.

Denis Leamy's first-half try and the boot of O'Gara were enough to see their side past a star-studded Toulouse, who had the life squeezed out of them in the final stages by the ruthless Reds.

10 – CONNACHT SLAY THEIR GIANT

Toulouse 14 Connacht 16

Stade Ernest Wallon, December 8, 2013

They had to wait for their chance out west where they were fed on a diet of Challenge Cup and Parker Pen Shield for more than a decade before Leinster's success invited them to the top table and they've relished their opportunity.

No one outside the camp saw this win coming, but Pat Lam's side stunned Toulouse with a display of commitment and skill that saw them become the first side since 2009 to win in a European game at the Stade Ernest Wallon.

Irish Independent

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