Connacht Rugby will taste Heineken Cup action for the first time next season – courtesy of Leinster winning their second Heineken Cup crown with a sensational comeback that clinched a 33-22 victory over Northampton Saints in a magnificent season’s finale at the Millennium Stadium.
The extra two ERC European Ranking points Leo Cullen’s battlers earned took them to No 1 place ahead of Munster and Toulouse for the 17th season of the Heineken Cup tournament.
Leinster’s triumph also earned Ireland an additional place with Connacht the beneficiaries and joining the elite after playing in a record 98 Challenge Cup matches in all 15 seasons of the competition.
It means Ireland will have four teams in the tournament for the first time while England will have seven following Harlequins winning the Amlin Challenge Cup a day earlier with a 19-18 victory over Stade Français Paris at Cardiff City Stadium that earned them automatic qualification.
But Connacht Rugby are not the only Heineken Cup debutants – Montpellier have qualified for European club rugby’s premier tournament for the first time after finishing in fifth place in the Top 14.
THE 24 HEINEKEN CUP 2011 / 2012 QUALIFIERS
(All qualifiers in alphabetical order)
ENGLAND (7) – Bath Rugby, Gloucester Rugby, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers, London Irish, Northampton Saints and Saracens
FRANCE (6) – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Biarritz Olympique, Castres Olympique, Montpellier, Racing Metro 92 and Toulouse
IRELAND (4) – Connacht Rugby, Leinster, Munster and Ulster Rugby
ITALY (2) – Aironi Rugby and Benetton Treviso
SCOTLAND (2) – Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors
WALES (3) – Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets