Thursday 22 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Dynasties collide at top of European club game'

The game-plan

Leinster’s Leo Cullen and Chris Whitaker (centre) lift the Heineken Cup in 2009. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Leo Cullen and Chris Whitaker (centre) lift the Heineken Cup in 2009. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Seven teams have won multiple Champions Cup titles and here we rank Europe's best of the best.

1 - Toulon (2014-'16)

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Winners: 2014, 2015, 2016

An expensively assembled collection of grizzled, hard-nosed professionals with an impressive array of medals in their back pocket, Toulon were hard to like but they are the only team to win three in a row.

Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson raises the trophy in 2014. Photo: Sportsfile
Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson raises the trophy in 2014. Photo: Sportsfile

Owner Mourad Boudjellal cut a controversial figure, but his soldiers of fortune bought into his project with Bernard Laporte at the helm.

Their record stands alone as the most impressive in the history of this tournament, coming from relative obscurity to defeat Clermont Auvergne in Dublin in 2013, dominating Saracens a year later in Cardiff before breaking Clermont hearts a third time in 2015.

With a superb pack filled with South African steel and the breakdown threat of Steffon Armitage, they had Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau steering the ship in behind and, at their best, they were unstoppable.

2 - Leinster (2009-present)

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Winners: 2009, 2011, 2012, 2018; finalists 2014

Under Leo Cullen, the current Leinster team are building a new dynasty but the former captain was at the helm of their first all-conquering side a decade ago as they won three titles in four seasons.

Paul O’Connell and Anthony Foley embrace after Munster’s 2006 win. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul O’Connell and Anthony Foley embrace after Munster’s 2006 win. Photo: Sportsfile

So long underachievers, Michael Cheika harnessed the glittering array of talent at his disposal and gave them a harder edge that saw them through in 2009.

When Cheika left, Leinster recruited Joe Schmidt to put some fine edges on the team's play and the players responded to the Kiwi by producing one of the most exciting title wins of them all when they came from behind to deny Northampton, before somehow beating Clermont in the 2012 semi-final and then recording the biggest final victory of them all against Ulster at Twickenham.

With a pack led by Cullen with a supporting cast that included Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Shane Jennings and with a backline that featured Johnny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and Isa Nacewa, they were awesome in full flow.

3 - Toulouse (2003-2010)

Winners 2003, '05, '10; Finalists 2004, '08

Although the personnel inevitably changed over the course of the 2000s, the guiding presence of Guy Noves in the coaching box kept a thread of continuity between this superb side that dominated the decade.

The only black mark against them is they only ever beat French teams in the final, losing to Wasps in an epic in 2004 and Munster four years later, but they had to beat all-comers along the way. In doing so, they played some of the finest rugby the tournament has ever seen - particularly in that 2004 final defeat when Rob Howley stole it at the death.

Having been the first coach to win the tournament in 1996, Noves rebuilt his team into a real force.

4 - Leicester (2001-2007)

Winners 2001, 2002; finalists 2007

One of only four teams to win back-to-back titles, Martin Johnson's Tigers were one of the most formidable teams of the last decade.

Their game was based on a powerful forward pack and, while their backline was not the most exciting ever seen, they delivered the final win over Stade Francais in 2001.

A year later, they were deserved winners over Munster even if Neil Back's hand soured the win and they seemed destined to sign off with another in 2007 but Wasps spoiled their party.

5 - Saracens (2014-present)

Winners 2016, 2017; finalists 2014, 2019

Like Toulon, this year's finalists are heavily backed and not easy to like but they are remarkably consistent and difficult to play against.

With Owen Farrell leading them at out-half and the majority of England's forwards in their pack, they have a superb blend of brute force and a clever, well-drilled attacking shape that overwhelms most teams.

The project has been building for some time under Mark McCall; they got to semi-finals and were beaten by Toulon in 2014 before finally getting over the line against Racing 92 in 2016. They then successfully defended their title against Clermont in Lyon and if they win tomorrow they'll climb up the charts. With their age profile, they aren't going away.

6 - Munster (2000-2008)

Winners 2006, 2008; finalists 2000, 2002

Munster's journey began with a surprise run to the 2000 final, but when they finally got over the line against Biarritz in 2006, no one was shocked.

By then, they had contributed so much to the competition that they deserved to get over the line and two years later they repeated the trick against Toulouse.

Led by a core of Irish forwards who combined real hardness with game-winning nous and set-piece excellence, they were guided by the superb Ronan O'Gara and backed by a colourful travelling support.

7 - Wasps (2004-2007)

Winners 2004, 2007

Warren Gatland harnessed the potential of Wasps in the early 2000s to produce a hard-nosed team that went to Dublin and beat Munster in an all-time classic semi-final in 2004, before beating a rampant Toulouse in the final.

Ian McGeechan was in charge when they returned to the final to end Leicester's hopes of a send-off for Johnson and Co in some style.

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