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Ranking the Top 25 Players in Heineken Cup History

Danny CoyleFeatured Columnist IIDecember 19, 2016

Ranking the Top 25 Players in Heineken Cup History

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    This will be the last season of Heineken Cup rugby in its current format.

    The tournament has lifted European club rugby to a whole new level since its inception in 1995 and has produced a catalogue of memorable moments.

    Those memories have been created by some of the game's greatest players so, as we count down to semi-final weekend in 2014, let's have a look at the best of them.

25. Martin Johnson

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    Tom Shaw/Getty Images

    Johnson captained Leicester to back-to-back wins in 2001 and 2002.

    As the captain of England and Leicester, there wasn’t a second row forward to touch him in terms of leadership and work rate.

    The World Cup winner embodied the bloody-minded, never-say-die attitude that oozed from the best Leicester sides of that era and won so many domestic and European honours.

    The Tigers have never won the tournament without him.

24. Fabien Pelous

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    Pelous was the fulcrum of the Toulouse side that won two Heineken Cups in 2003 and 2005.

    The giant second row amassed 118 caps for France as well as playing at the top of club European and domestic rugby for 14 years.

    He narrowly missed out on a third Heineken Cup with defeat to Munster in 2008 and retired in 2009.

23. Emile N’Tamack

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    N’Tamack was the first man to lift the Heineken Cup when he skippered Toulouse to the title in 1996 with a win over Cardiff at the old Arms Park.

    The bruising centre/wing was the mainstay of the Toulouse midfield for seven years and was in the side that claimed a second title in 2003.

22. Austin Healey

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    Healey’s versatility was to the fore in Leicester’s first Heineken Cup win in 2001.

    Starting the game as scrum-half, he switched to fly-half late in the game and made the decisive break at the Parc des Princes against Stade Francais that led to the winning try.

    He scored himself 12 months later when the Tigers retained the trophy against Munster.

21. Serge Betsen

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    Betsen is perhaps one of the best players never to have won the Heineken Cup.

    The flanker played for 12 seasons for Biarritz and was in the side that lost to Munster in 2006.

    He moved on to Wasps where he rekindled his career after reversing his decision to retire but never returned to the final of the European showpiece.

    Betsen's rugged style and outrageously high work rate made him one of the most feared players in Europe.

20. Napolioni Nalaga

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    Claude Paris

    The giant Fijian wing has been terrorising European defences for several seasons.

    The big prize has eluded Nalaga and his Clermont Auvergne team mates thus far, but he did score in last year’s final which they eventually lost to Toulon.

    Nalaga has brought that Pacific Island power to the finest fields of Europe and enriched the competition greatly.

19. Dafydd James

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    James is the competition's third highest try-scorer with 29 and made three Test appearances for the Lions in 2001.

    A powerful wing, James made 48 appearances for Wales and was in the Scarlets sides that battled their way to the later stages of the Heineken Cup, his most famous score coming in a win over reigning champions Munster in the 2006/7 season that put the holders out.

18. David Humphreys

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    Humphreys was the cool head at the eye of the Ulster storm when the Red Hand Gang won the trophy in 1999.

    That season Humphreys piloted them to wins home and away against Toulouse, as well as defeating Stade Francais in the knockout rounds and overcoming Colomiers in the final.

    Humphreys was an accomplished No. 10 with ball in hand but especially boot, as his drop goal that won Ulster the Magners League in 2006 showed.

17. Sergio Parisse

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    Parisse has never tasted Heineken Cup glory, but a player of his talent cannot be omitted from this list.

    He has made shortlists for the IRB Player of the year in previous years and been much coveted by other clubs in France and around Europe, but the Italian captain has remained with Stade Francais.

    He doesn't have the medals some of the other greats of the European game have, but he has every bit as much talent.

16. Geordan Murphy

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    Murphy has scored 25 Heineken Cup tries and is, overall, England's most decorated player with eight Premiership winner's medals.

    He scored in Leicester's second straight win in 2002 and has otherwise been one of the most reliable, consistent performers the competition has seen.

15. Rob Howley

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    Howley enjoyed the bulk of his Heineken Cup success towards the end of his career as a Wasps player.

    In total, the Wales and Lions scrum half scored 12 tries in 38 tournament matches.

    But it is the one he snaffled in the 2004 final that made him a Wasps legend. With the ball bobbling towards the touchline, Toulouse full-back Clement Poitrenaud dallied, and Howley pounced to clinch the trophy.

     

     

14. Tommy Bowe

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    Tommy Bowe excelled in the Heineken Cup for both the Ospreys and Ulster, scoring 24 tries in the competition to date.

    He became a Lion in 2009 and toured again in 2013.

    Bowe's pace and game smarts made him one of the most dangerous finishers on the circuit in his prime years, and at the age of 30 he still has plenty to offer in his second stint as an Ulster player.

13. William Servat

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    Servat is now working as forwards coach at Toulouse, the club he served with great distinction in European competition, playing in the Heineken Cup-winning sides of 2003 and 2005.

    The big hooker was one of the best front row forwards in loose play and combined this with fearsome scrummaging power.

    He compiled 44 caps for France, including their run to the 2011 World Cup final.

12. Diego Dominguez

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    The Italian was the brains behind the Stade Francais team that came so close in 2001.

    He kicked nine penalties and a drop goal in the final that was snatched away from them by Leon Lloyd’s late try.

    Dominguez was one of the tournament's best goal-kickers and one of the principal reasons Italy were admitted to the Six Nations in 2000.

11. Josh Lewsey

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    Lewsey played in both of Wasps' Heineken Cup wins and was one of the stars of European rugby in the 2000s, winning the World Cup with England and playing a key role in the success of his club.

    Lewsey didn't have the flair of the French three quarters or the searing pace of the Islanders, but his iron will and tactical awareness made him a highly valued asset for club and country.

10. Rocky Elsom

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    Elsom was the rising star of Australian rugby when he came north to take up a contract with Leinster.

    He became a pivotal figure for the Irish province in their run to the 2009 Heineken Cup final and delivered a man-of-the-match performance against Leicester.

    Elsom's all-action style was suited to the northern hemisphere competition, and he returned to Australia to take up the captaincy of the Wallabies.

9. Shane Horgan

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    Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

    Horgan patrolled Leinster's right wing to devastating effect throughout an 87-match Heineken Cup career. He helped himself to 27 tries in the competition and picked the trophy up twice in 2009 and 2011.

    His career came to an end in 2012 due to a knee injury, with 207 Leinster appearances under his belt and 67 Ireland caps.

    Horgan's size and power made him a different proposition to most outside backs in Europe.

8. Gordon D'Arcy

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    With three Heineken Cups to his name and 26 tries, Gordon D'Arcy is one of the best three quarters to have played in the tournament.

    He is one of only three centres to feature in the top 10 try-scorers list, alongside his mate Brian O'Driscoll.

    The world's most capped centre pairing proved just as effective on the big club stage, and Leinster and Ireland are unlikely to see their equals again any time soon.

7. Anthony Foley

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    Foley's story and that of the Heineken Cup are entwined. Of all the Munster stalwarts, it was Foley who the rugby public yearned for most to end the wait for a Munster victory.

    The No. 8 was in the side that lost out to Northampton in 2000 and Leicester in 2002. He finally ended the agony in 2006 when he captained the province to victory over Biarritz.

    He retired in 2008 as the most capped Munster player and now holds a coaching role at the organisation.

6. Lawrence Dallaglio

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    ADAM BUTLER

    Dallaglio, much like Martin Johnson for Leicester, was the driving force behind Wasps' rise to the top of the European summit.

    Wasps snared Premiership titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005 under him and added the 2004 and 2007 Heineken Cups with that famous win over Toulouse and a one-sided affair against Leicester.

    Dallaglio was the beating heart of those sides and the best No. 8 in Europe throughout that period.

5. Paul O'Connell

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    O’Connell has won two Heineken Cups with Munster.

    The Heineken Cup is the competition the Irish provinces live and breathe for, but it holds a particular affection for Munster who, after years of trying, got their hands on it at last in 2006.

    O’Connell’s part in that triumph was instrumental, and he has been in the engine room of the province’s efforts in Europe for years.

    He is one of those few players capable of raising his performance level for the big occasion and has done so on countless Heineken Cup days for Munster.

    Notably, he returned from a long injury lay-off last season to play in the quarter-final at Harlequins, where he was the best player on the field by a mile, a performance that sealed his spot on the plane to Australia for the Lions tour.

4. Vincent Clerc

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    Clerc is the all-time leading try-scorer in Heineken Cup history with 35.

    The diminutive Toulouse wing was the most dangerous wide man in France from the moment he made his international debut in 2002.

    He scored in the 2003 final against Perpignan and also appeared in their 2005 win as well as their final defeats of 2008 and 2004.

    He became the tournament’s leading scorer in 2009 with a brace against Sale in the pool stage.

3. Yannick Jauzion

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    David Rogers/Getty Images

    Yannick Jauzion made an instant impact on the Heineken Cup by winning it in his first season with Toulouse.

    He followed that up with a man-of-the-match display in the 2005 final when Toulouse beat Stade Francais in the final at Murrayfield.

    He claimed a third title in 2009 when Toulouse beat Biarritz to go with the three Six Nations title he helped France to.

    With his retirement in 2013, the game said goodbye to a modern-day centre who had the lot—pace, power, skill and intelligence.

     

2. Ronan O'Gara

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    No one has scored more points in the Heineken Cup than Ronan O'Gara.

    The former Munster fly-half was another of the players who could raise his game for the big European stage, and he delivered nerveless displays with the boot time and time again.

    He clocked up 1367 points in his Heineken Cup career and was in the No. 10 jersey for both of their final victories.

    O'Gara's match-winning ability hardly faded towards the end of his career, as was evident in Munster's 2011 pool clash with Northampton.

    He slotted a drop goal to win the contest after some 40 phases of play.

1. Brian O'Driscoll

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    O'Driscoll has scored the second most tries in the competition's history with 33.

    He was as influential for Leinster in their dominance of the competition in the last 2000s as he has been for Ireland throughout his career.

    With three tournament wins to his name, O'Driscoll bows out as one of the all-time greats. Perhaps his finest hours have come outside of the final itself.

    He was outstanding in a try-scoring performance in Leinster's win down in Toulouse in the 2006 quarter-final and again in 2009 when Leinster slaughtered Munster in 2009.

    For a player who shone so brightly throughout his career, it was fitting that the latter half of it brought so much silverware.

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