Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Heineken Cup memories

A timely trip down Heineken Cup memory lane for the Irish provinces by Kevin O'Brien...


With the onset of a brave new dawn in European rugby being the start of the EPCR Champions Cup next weekend, I find myself thinking back to the Heineken Cup and to what a glorious competition it was. There are so many great memories to think back on so in this piece I am reflecting on the ones that stand out most for me. It is not the intention to provide an in-depth technical analysis but to offer some of my reflections on what was a great competition.

From an Irish perspective the Heineken Cup or H-Cup certainly provided unforgettable moments of drama, despair and glory. 

As a Leinster fan it certainly gave me one of my most painful sporting memories when Munster hammered us out the gate in Lansdowne road in the semi final in 2006. Who can forget Rog jumping the hoarding and throwing his leg over the signage? Ouch. The image still hurts. I loved ROG in an Ireland shirt and also in a Munster one when not playing Leinster. But right there and then, well let’s just say I may have wished him harm. 

My earliest memory of the Heineken Cup is the triumph of Ulster over former French rugby powerhouse Colomiers, who had beaten Munster in the QF, in 1999. It was a year when the English decided to boycott the competition. A row amongst the various factions involved in the running of European rugby why I never!  More than anything else Ulster’s win made me realise that this rugby lark was a band wagon worth jumping on. A rugby obsession was born! 

It was the story of Munster that really elevated the competition for me. Their tale had everything, heartbreak, sacrifice & ultimate glory.  Their ferocious support in “Fortress Thomond” was a thing to behold and scared the bejaysus out of most who turned up there. The players generally responded in kind with too many to mention performances of feral intensity. There really seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between the fans and players. You had to play the formidable Munster team but you also had to tame their intensely passionate and highly vocal support. Not many did. Indeed some teams were beaten before they even set foot on the pitch. Just ask Gloucester. Munster fans were the envy of nearly every other team in the competition as they drove on their heroes with a rabid passion. I looked on as a Leinster fan with a combination of envy and also admiration. I wanted some of that! The heroic performances were too many to recall here. But it was games like the miracle match against Gloucester that perpetuated the Munster myth. In truth there were many miracle matches played by this team.  Beating bigger supposedly more physical and talented teams was a speciality. The people of Munster took the team to their hearts. Heck the whole country did likewise. 

The pain of 2 lost finals before they won one certainly sticks in the mind and contributed greatly to the Munster H-Cup story.  After a sensational win against Toulouse in France in the semi final in 2000 there was bitter disappointment in losing 9-8 to Northampton with ROG having a particularly difficult day. It was heartbreaking stuff. So near yet so far. 

Then there was a second final defeat to the mighty Leicester in 2002. A hard fought game is remembered for the “hand of Back” incident. The injustice of it all. The TV took a size 11 boot that day I have to say! The only other time that ever happened was when Michael Thomas scored a last gasp winner for Arsenal against Liverpool to win the league in 1989. And I’m not even a Liverpool fan!

Two close semi final defeats were to follow however Munster finally reached their nirvana in 2006 when they beat Biarritz 23-19 in the final. It’s this game that provided me with one of my abiding memories of the competition. Peter Stringers try. It was a thing of simple beauty. His suckered in practically the whole Biarritz team from the back of a scrum sending them one way whilst he trotted to the try line the other.  I still chuckle any time I see that try.  The shots of Limerick in wild celebration as the final whistle approaching that were showing in the stadium courtesy of Sky just added to the occasion. Biarritz weren’t best pleased at the picture being beamed into the stadium. But for the rest of us well it just added emotional release of Munster winning their first H-Cup.  Jeez Sky really loved Munster. It was a great celebration and whilst I was delighted Leinster were my team. All I could think was would I ever see it? A second H-Cup title followed for the Munster men in 2008 with a tight victory over Toulouse. It was another outstanding victory. But it’s the first victory and Peter Stringer's try that has stayed with me.

Now I have sizable cohort of Munster friends who were, at this stage taking real delight in pointing that they were now two times European champions. The term Ladyboys was being bandied about a lot back then. I won’t say that it didn’t smart. Thankfully Leinster’s purple patch wasn’t too far away. Leinster to this point had flattered to deceive in the competition. Great victories were not followed up. They had a reputation as a team with a soft underbelly. Sure they could throw the ball around and tear teams apart with wonderful rugby as seen with the semi final defeat of Toulouse in France in 2006. They always seemed to lack the required toughness to grind out tough results in tight games. That is why one of my favourite Leinster moments was the victory over Quins in the infamous Bloodgate game. 

Yes the game will be remembered for the shenanigans of Quins and Dean Richards but for me that game had monumental affect on the Leinster players. Under their unheralded coach Michael Cheika they played a more pragmatic style of rugby and were proving more difficult to beat. They won the slugfest the match became defending to man as if their life depended on it. Time after time Quins pummelled the Leinster line only to be repelled by Leinster defenders. Rocky, BOD, Leo and all putting in massive performances. They weren’t always legal but they got the job done. I wasn’t use to this type of Leinster performance or victory. A 6-5 win was hardly a classic. But for me it was up there with their greatest victories in the competition. It was defining. Ladies no more! A comprehensive victory in the semi final over Munster and a nervy final win over Leicester will live long in the memory but the Quins game was that I look back on. Suddenly the belief was there. 

That first cup win for Leinster was important stepping stone for the team. It also announced the arrival of Jonny Sexton who became a pivotal figure for the team. His rivalry back then with ROG was one of the delicious sub-plots to come out of the competition.  How we all lapped it up.  The Munster/Leinster rivalry was now ingrained in our psyche. Intense, parochial rivalries are one of the great things about sport and boy this one provided intensity in spades.  More importantly, though after the first Leinster win I thought I would be able to have a pint on a Friday night with the lads, you know the cohort from Munster that I mentioned earlier with my head held high. Leinster had finally won a H-Cup. I should have known better as I was quickly put in my place, ‘come back to me boy when ye have won two.’

Luckily I didn’t have to wait too much longer for another victory. The final match with Northampton was probably the greatest final in the competitions history. The comeback victory by Leinster was one the most impressive not just in rugby but in any sport. I remember being unwell at the time of the game and went home to my parents house to look at the match. I knew my chronic man flu would be properly looked after there.

God bless mothers. Incidentally my mother is a bigger Leinster fan than I am. The mood was so bleak at half time. The man flu getting worse with every passing minute. My mother couldn’t possibly face a cup of tea. Now that’s saying something. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to throw the boot at the TV on this occasion. My dad decided to go for a walk for some air. Then that second half comeback inspired by Johnny Sexton. The Flu was getting better with every try. Dad was now outside peaking in at the game through the living room window shouting at the TV. He only came back inside when we hit the front. I don’t need to go into the joy of beating Dylan Hartley’s Northampton any more that has already been written elsewhere. It was sweet, sweet unbridled joy. Man flu? What man flu?  Suffice to say there were a several phones down in Cork hoping all night. That’s two lads. There was a distinct lack of response.

Another victory followed for Leinster the following season with a comprehensive final victory over Ulster. That season was memorable for the semi final win over Clermont in France. An enthralling game ultimately decided by great defence on an unfortunate knock on in the dying minutes. Such tension. When Sean O’Brien won that deciding penalty oh boy the relief. I was in a pub in Galway for the game and bar a few disgruntled Munster fans the place erupted. That was a headache I enjoyed the next morning. Mind you I Haven’t drank baby Guinness since though. Truth be told, the final win was a relaxed affair with Leinster bossing the game from start to finish. The texts to Cork that night read ‘three stars on my shirt.’ Surprise, surprise there was no response. I still use that line every now and again. No more so than after the disappointing loss to Munster in the Aviva 2 weeks ago. It was all I had!

Seeing as I live in the West it would be remiss of me not to mention Connacht. Whilst they might never have won the competition they too have provided some great memories. Underfunded, under-appreciated little Connacht have often punched above their weight with memorable victories over the likes of Quins and most famously away in Toulouse. These wins are remembered in my household as some of the few examples of times when I and my wife have had a conversation about sport!  She has since developed a keen interest in Connacht rugby. I do wonder, though is worth it sometimes as Leinster seem to have developed a habit of losing in Galway. And boy do I hear about it. 

After the recent glorious past of 5 H-cups in 9 years it is going to be increasingly harder for the Irish teams to win European competitions given increased playing budgets in England & especially France. However the story of Irish success in the H-Cup especially where Munster is concerned is one of the little guy triumphing over adversity. It’s in our DNA to fight against insurmountable odds. It’s an intangible that other rugby playing nations envy, admire and endeavour to replicate. We’ve triumphed over adversity in the past. We will do it again.

Kevin O’Brien (@marywards) : Rugby mad Leinster man exiled in Connaught. Father of 3 with wife who hates sport but tolerates rugby.


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