Monday 19 March 2018

Planes, trains and memories

John Kelly scores a last minute try for Munster against Gloucester in 2003's Heineken Cup
John Kelly scores a last minute try for Munster against Gloucester in 2003's Heineken Cup
Guy Noves is led from the field by police after being mistaken for an overenthusiastic fan following Toulouse's victory over Stade Francais in 2005
Harlequins' Tom Williams leaves the field with fake blood pouring from his mouth
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the beginning there was an empty shell. It was summer 1995 and rugby had just gone 'open', as it was phrased back then. Overnight there was a small army of professional players scattered around the Five Nations, and they would need a competition to keep them amused, and to generate some income. That something would be the European Cup.

The prime movers in setting up the tournament were the late Vernon Pugh of Wales, France's Marcel Martin and Ireland's Tom Kiernan.

"Vernon was the key man," recalls Kiernan. "He has been a great loss to the game in so many ways. He really understood the urgency of the situation so we had to get around the table quickly to come up with something. Vernon knew that the consequences of not doing it would probably have resulted in what's happening now – though I don't think the private money was around to invest in the game back then.

"In Ireland, we were 'dosed' to have the provincial model ready and waiting to use for the professional game. It suited us down to the ground and while there was an argument at the time that we should have put clubs in ahead of provinces, I don't think it would have worked. If you look around you'd see that Wales had a semi-similar model to us, as did Scotland, Italy had as well, and the French union at that time were very close to the clubs. I'm not fearful for the future but I'm not too sure where it's going either."

First Warning Shot

The decision of the English clubs to boycott the 1998/'99 season. It was early days in the new world and already it was clear that with great rugby would come serious strain.

Best 'Who's yer man?'

Gregory Kacala, Polish No 6 for Brive who steamrolled Leicester Tigers in the 1997 final. He went to Cardiff a year later. Not a great choice that.

Biggest Mill

Battle of Brive, 1998, between the home team (who won with a dodgy decision in the last minute) and Pontypridd. It continued that night in Le Bar Toulzac downtown. These were the days when teams didn't have charter flights whisking them home within a couple of hours of the game, and instead stayed over to wind down.

"It was just like you see in the Wild West films," Wales flanker Martyn Williams wrote subsequently in his autobiography. "There were chairs flying through the air and smashing into shorts bottles behind the bar as the barman dived for cover. It was just chaos in there. The place was smashed to bits. The fighting must have gone on for five or 10 minutes – much longer than it had on the field. I remember coming out with blood pouring down my face and the back of my head from two separate gashes."

Williams was one of six Ponty players questioned by the police after Brive had, interestingly, made a complaint. Three were detained the next night before being released. The club was fined £30,000.

Best five games

Leicester v Stade Francais, Parc des Princes 2001; Munster v Gloucester, Thomond Park 2003; Wasps v Toulouse, Twickenham 2004; Leicester v Stade Francais, Welford Road 2007; Leinster v Munster, Croke Park 2009.

Top Marksman

Ronan O'Gara on 1,365 points. Four years ago he won the Player of the Tournament award covering the first 15 years of the competition, such was his role in the development of the Heineken Cup. If Munster emerged at just the right time for European competition, then the same Munster would have been nothing without O'Gara.

Best Venues

After the final in 2006, an epic event that had a special atmosphere, a Welsh-based ERC man gushed in the press room: "Let's make Cardiff the home of the Heineken Cup final!" When we were finished beating him up over the crap, undersized airport out in the sticks, and the armpit that is Cardiff city centre, he relented. Great stadium, pity about the bits outside. As for the others, our favourites in no particular order include Kingsholm, Gloucester's compact ground with lots of heart; Parc des Princes, graveyard for the Irish in France and venue for the terrific final between Stade and Leicester; Croke Park, the scene of one of the greatest days in the history of the tournament; Parc des Sport Michelin, Clermont's heaving home where they are unbeaten for 76 games coming into this weekend.

Best Turnaround

Ebbw Vale losing 108-16 to Toulouse in the away leg and turning them over 11-9 in the second – a fractious encounter that had afters on the disciplinary front, from which France prop Franck Tournaire was lucky to emerge without sanction.

Worst Venues

Stade Jean Bouin; before it had its stunning makeover last year, the home of Stade Francais truly was a kip. Others with not much to recommend them: The Rec, Firhill, and Vicarage Road – thankfully off the circuit now.

Worst Games

The 2003 final between Toulouse and Perpignan; the decider between Toulouse and Biarritz in 2010.

Heaviest Hand

The Lothian and Borders Police manhandling Toulouse coach Guy Noves after he tried to get into the crowd to greet his family following Toulouse's win over Stade Francais in 2005. He was dragged off to a holding room and missed the trophy presentation. "I calmed down and kept trying to tell them that I was the Toulouse coach and what I had been trying to do," he said. "Eventually they understood."

Most Bizarre Finish

The penalty shoot-out in the 2009 semi-final between Cardiff and Leicester. It came down to back-rowers Martyn Williams and Jordan Crane. Williams missed; Crane didn't.

Best Day On The Road

Munster in Bordeaux in 2000. If the trip to Saracens in the pool stages was the first, tentative step outside the parish for the Munster mob then by the time they got to the semi-final against Toulouse they were fully mobilised. Glorious weather and a really good game, embellished by one of the best tries – from O'Gara – that Munster have ever scored in this competition. The outhalf's pass to start it all, way out in front of Mike Mullins, was a thing of beauty, and is worth looking up on YouTube.

Worst Day On The Road

Leinster losing to Toulouse in the semi-final in 2010. A very long, dismally wet day, a one-sided game and delayed flights home.

Biggest Scandal

Bloodgate in 2009 when Harlequins were caught faking a blood injury to wing Tom Williams in order to get Nick Evans back on the field. The plan was that the patently lame Evans, who with great foresight had gone off as a 'tactical' move, despite being banjaxed, would come back on and drop a goal to save their bacon. It blew up into the Force 10 from Navarone. Fair enough, it was blatant cheating, but in all the hand-wringing there were any number of coaches hugely relieved that it hadn't happened on their watch. Quins were not the only ones at it.

Best Coach

The stats say Guy Noves, who with four titles for Toulouse is two clear of Dean Richards, Warren Gatland, Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt, all on two Heineken Cups apiece.

Most Valuable Player

O'Gara did more, for longer, than anyone else. And Toulouse would not have enjoyed such longevity without Fabien Pelous. Neither would Leinster have hit their record patch without Johnny Sexton. For us, though, Nathan Hines is unique for his outstanding service to four clubs: Edinburgh, Perpignan, Leinster and Clermont. And despite being in his 37th year, the chances are Sale will get value for money from him when he arrives there in the summer. He was never in the O'Driscoll/Wilkinson class for profile but he has been incredibly good at what he does – a mixture of hard edge and lovely skill – and remarkably consistent with it.

Best Short Stops

Rocky Elsom – an awesome contribution to Leinster in 2008/'09. He was wise to move on straight away for his career never hit the same heights since then. Brad Thorn was in Leinster for only three months but was worth every penny it took to get him over from Japan.

Biggest Flops

Wales. Pick any region you want, but over 19 years they have managed one finalist and five semi-finalists from a variety of teams. In the same period, Ireland have produced six winners, three runners up, and 10 other semi-finalists. Yes, the record of Scotland and Italy is worse than Wales' but nothing was expected of them.

Best Fans

Munster's. In 1999, Ulster became the first supporters group to move en masse to follow their team when they flooded across the border for the unlosable final against Colomiers. The 49,000 who attended Lansdowne Road that day was the biggest attendance in the five-year history of the competition. Unfortunately for Ulster, that would be their last qualification for the knockout phase for another 11 years.

In the meantime, Munster made the top spot in Ireland their own and couldn't help qualifying – starting in 1998/'99, when Ulster won it, Munster made it 12 years in a row that they won a place in the knockouts.

Plenty of opportunity then to build a Red Army who became skilled in the techniques of invasion and infiltration.

Hardest Sell

Toulouse v Perpignan in the final of 2003. The semi-finals that year featured Toulouse at home to Munster, and Leinster – their first time in the last four – at home to Perpignan. While the prospects of an all-Ireland final were longish odds, the expectation was that Leinster would make it and enjoy home advantage in the final. As it turned out both of them were beaten, giving the boys in ERC a steep climb in trying to sex up and all-French final in Dublin.

As part of the development of the competition, the decision had been taken to fix the final well in advance of the finalists being known, ie the event was bigger than the last two teams left standing. Rather than shift the final to France, ERC stuck to their guns and ran the show in Lansdowne Road. It was a flop attended, according to official sources, by 28,600, which seemed generous. A year later they were on the money however with Wasps against Toulouse in Twickenham. The event hasn't looked back since.

Best Comeback

The highest profile was Leinster v Saints in the 2011 final when they were 22-6 down at the break. The most bizarre, however, was Edinburgh v Racing in the pool game in Murrayfield three years ago when they went from 17-3 up after 15 minutes to 44-20 down in the second half. And won 48-47.

Worst No-Show

Bourgoin v Leinster 2004/'05. The French sent the also-rans to Dublin for the first leg, and lost 92-17. A week later, at home and stung by the avalanche of criticism that had landed on them, they went down 26-23.

Final Warning Shot

Welsh and English clubs agreeing in February to plough ahead with an Anglo-Welsh league next season if the planned new Europe wasn't sanctioned. A month ago it was.

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