There’s been no shortage of drama since back-to-back fixtures were introduced in 2001-02, as this trip down memory lane shows…
ROUNDS THREE and four of Europe’s elite club competition sees teams play the same opponents in successive weeks – so it’s a chance to either turn the tables or hammer home your advantage. As the European Champions Cup returns this weekend, here are five double meetings that set the tournament alight…
2008-09: Grit over glamour
Round 3: Stade Français 10-15 Harlequins
Round 4: Harlequins 19-17 Stade Français
Can anything top the pulsating 2008 games between these two colourful capital teams? The Pool Four encounters showed European rugby in its full glory, the first meeting at the Stade de France taking place to a backdrop of cancan girls and jousting knights in front of nearly 80,000 people – a record for a pool match.
With Danny Care at his impish best, Quins scored early tries through Tom Williams and Jordan Turner-Hall and then hung on defiantly to win 15-10.
Conditions were in stark contrast at the Stoop a week later, torrential rain necessitating a pitch inspection.
After a ding-dong battle in the mud, Quins trailed by a point as they enacted the final play. There followed 29 nerve-racking phases over four-and-a-half minutes as Quins strove to engineer a drop-goal chance for Nick Evans.
It was a huge ask on such a surface but the fly-half finally had a crack from 25 metres and the kick wobbled over the bar.
“It was probably the ugliest drop-kick I’ve kicked in my life but it doesn’t matter if it goes over,” said Evans, who was mobbed by ecstatic team-mates.
Quins qualified as top seeds and advanced to a match that gained notoriety – the Bloodgate quarter-final against Leinster.
2003-04: Wasps show warrior spirit
Round 3: Wasps 9-14 Celtic Warriors
Round 4: Celtic Warriors 12-17 Wasps
Celtic Warriors, the forgotten fifth region of Welsh rugby, endured a short life but they certainly made their mark. The Heineken Cup (as it was called then) kicked off later in 2003-04 because of the World Cup and in January the Warriors travelled to a powerful Wasps team boasting four English world champions.
In filthy conditions, the visitors bottled up Lawrence Dallaglio and Rob Howley and struck a decisive blow on 74 minutes when Tonga wing Aisea Havii touched down a grubber kick in the corner. Warriors won 14-9, the “most memorable win in our short history,” said coach Lynn Howells.
Man of the Match that day was Richard Parks and he and his team-mates had another mountain to climb in the return Pool Six fixture five days later. The Brewery Field was full to the rafters, the kick-off being delayed by the pressures of a 10,000 crowd, but two key figures were missing – Warriors’ injured locks Brent Cobain and Rob Sidoli. Without them, the Welsh side had no lineout ball to speak of and went down 17-12.
Within six months, Wasps had won the Heineken Cup for the first time while the cash-strapped Warriors had been liquidated by the WRU.
2009-10: Silencing the critics
Round 3: Munster 24-23 Perpignan
Round 4: Perpignan 14-37 Munster
Last-gasp wins are something of a Munster specialty in Europe – just take last year’s 18-17 win at Perpignan when JJ Hanrahan ghosted down the touchline with the clock showing red.
It was a familiar feeling for the French side, who were on the end a typical Munster one-two five years ago. Munster were under fire at the time, accused of being over the hill, but Ronan O’Gara’s seven penalties and drop-goal saw them edge home 24-23 in the third-round Pool One tie at Thomond Park.
Perpignan, however, were a fearsome prospect on home soil, having won 16 consecutive home games in the Heineken Cup, and 23 in all competitions. So a week later they were stunned by the ferocity of Paul O’Connell and the Munster pack, who laid the foundations for a 37-14 four-try roasting, Denis Fogarty, Denis Hurley, Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett all touching down.
Coach Tony McGahan described it as “one of the greatest away wins in Munster’s history” and no one has really underestimated Munster since.
2013-14: Embarrassment to riches
Round 3: Northampton 7-40 Leinster
Round 4: Leinster 9-18 Northampton
Leinster’s 33-22 final triumph of 2011 remains the most sensational comeback in Heineken Cup history, and their victims that day, Northampton, scented revenge when the Irish province came calling last December.
Saints were unbeaten at Franklin’s Gardens but walked in at half-time shell-shocked as Leinster scored four tries to lead the Pool One clash 26-0. Brian O’Driscoll set up the first two scores with a deft grubber and through-the-legs pass, and he later awarded himself 8.5 out of 10 for his performance – and he was his harshest critic.
It finished 40-7, Luke Fitzgerald scoring a hat-trick, and no one argued with Saints boss Jim Mallinder when he labelled it “embarrassing”.
A week later the English high-flyers had the chance to right the wrongs. They moved George North to centre to give O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy something different to think about, and deployed Samu Manoa’s physicality in the back row. Christian Day was introduced at lock in a bid to dictate the lineout.
It was a tactical masterclass, tries by North and Jamie Elliott giving Saints an 18-9 victory that split the group open. “Remarkable what a 40-point hiding can do for you,” wrote Michael Aylwin in The Guardian.
In the event, Northampton just missed out on the knockout stages but this win provided the belief and impetus for a dream double of Aviva Premiership and Amlin Challenge Cup.
2006-07: Scarlet fever
Round 3: Llanelli Scarlets 20-19 Toulouse
Round 4: Toulouse 34-41 Llanelli Scarlets
It’s eight years since Toulouse, the four-time European champions, failed to progress to the quarter-finals and few from Llanelli will forget it.
The first of the teams’ back-to-back Pool Five dates in 2006 was dramatic enough, with Stradey Park erupting after Simon Easterby’s late try, converted by Stephen Jones, clinched a 20-19 success over the French aristocrats.
That was merely the hors-d’oeuvre. The following week the Scarlets pulled off arguably the competition’s greatest triumph when they responded to a 31-10 deficit with an enthralling, never-say-die brio.
Darren Daniel and Barry Davies crossed in quick succession, and when wing Daniel pounced on a loose ball on 66 minutes, Jones converting from out wide, incredibly Scarlets were level.
Yet the best was still to come. Jones dropped back for a monster drop-goal attempt, only to outwit the Toulouse chasers by instead passing to Regan King. The Kiwi centre, provider of Dafydd James’s first-half try, carved through the blind-side defence and popped the ball to Nathan Thomas for the winning score.
“We’ve tried to instil in our players that they should have a go with ball in hand,” said Scarlets DoR Phil Davies, “and that approach was never more evident than on this occasion.”
His side was to bow out in the semi-finals.
Click here to see a video of some of the Heineken Cup’s funniest moments!