5 Great Pool Games of the Heineken Cup
The pool stages of the Heineken Cup get under way this weekend.
It might be swathed in controversy over its future, but one thing not in doubt is the quality of entertainment delivered by Europe’s best club competition.
Over the coming months, we are in for a treat.
From the Miracle Match of Munster to the Stunner at the Stoop, even the group phase of this great tournament has thrown up some unforgettable clashes.
These are my top five from the early rounds; have a look and see if you agree.
5. Edinburgh 48-47 Racing Metro, Murrayfield, 2011
Scottish comebacks against French sides are rarer than hen’s teeth.
Rarer still when achieved from 24 points down with 20 minutes to go. But that’s what Michael Bradley’s Edinburgh accomplished with four converted scores from Netani Talei, Tom Brown, Roddy Grant and Tim Visser.
The quartet scored in such quick succession that Racing’s Argentinian maestro Juan Martin Hernandez still had time to get into a decent field position for a winning drop goal.
From the halfway line, Hernandez missed the target, and Racing earned the dubious honour of the most points ever scored in Europe in a losing effort.
4. Toulouse 34-41 Scarlets, Stade Ernest Wallon, 2006
The reigning European champions that season, Toulouse wasted little time in putting their guests all but out of reach.
In the previous year when these two met, the Scarlets had achieved the rare feat of scoring 40 points and ending up on the losing side in a 49-42 reverse, so bucket loads of points were a reasonable bet.
However, a hat-trick from Clement Poitrenaud in the opening half hour seemed to suggest the vast majority this time would be racked up by the home side.
At 24-3, the Scarlets looked dead and buried, and when the men from Llanelli did score through Dafydd James, Poitrenaud quickly replied with his fourth. Then things changed.
With no other course of action open to them, the Scarlets launched a carefree assault on the French line. The result was four converted tries from Darren Daniel (2), Barry Davies and Nathan Thomas to complete a remarkable turnaround.
3. Munster 23-21 Northampton, Thomond Park, 2012
If there is one ground in Europe that you would still not back your side to win if the lead was by less than a score in the final minute, it’s Thomond Park.
Its tightly packed terraces may have been replaced by towering 21st-century stands, but the maniacal support remains as close to a 16th man as any side can get.
They were willing their side on against the Saints in 2012 as the Englishmen led 21-20 with the clock almost up.
Ronan O’Gara—who else—marshaled his pack through a lung-bursting 40 phases of possession before he was happy with his field position to drop the goal that broke Northampton hearts.
2. Harlequins 19-17 Stade Francais, Twickenham Stoop, 2008
We thought we had seen all the drama these two could produce a week earlier in the Stade de France when Dean Richards’ side crossed the channel for a smash-and-grab win in front of 76,000 fans.
Back at a rain-sodden Stoop in front of an audience less than a quarter of the size, the conditions made for a far more drudge affair.
Stade had moved out to an 11-3 lead before Quins clawed their way back to lead 16-14, but a late Juan Martin Hernandez drop goal looked to have done enough for the Parisians to avenge their home defeat.
Enter Nick Evans. Deep into injury time, with Stade leading 17-16, the kiwi fly half was desperately scrambling to keep the game alive as his side crashed and bashed their way through 30 phases.
A chink of light momentarily opened for Evans who feinted a drop at goal and slithered through a gap to get himself the position he needed. One more ruck and the drop goal shot was his.
The ball wobbled and wavered, just dipping the right side of the crossbar to send TW2 into muddy ecstasy.
1. Munster 33-5 Gloucester, Thomond Park, 2003
The Irish juggernaut was beginning to roll as Munster’s love affair with the tournament took hold.
But they needed a small miracle to get out of their pool following a loss at Gloucester’s Kingsholm in the earlier rounds.
They had to beat England’s best club at the time by scoring four tries and a margin of 27 points in order to qualify for the quarter finals as the best runner up.
So, they did, with John Kelly’s 80th-minute try and Ronan O’Gara’s touchline conversion sealing the mathematically impossible.
The "Miracle Match" celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and it remains the best pool-stage clash in terms of drama in the tournament’s history.
Do you agree with my five choices? Let us know in the comments section under this.
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