After 46 matches, BRIVE turned in a sublime performance to destroy Dean Richard's Leicester 28-9 in front of an enthralled Cardiff Arms Park crowd of 41,664, the match watched by a television audience of millions worldwide.
Around 350,000 spectators had gone through the turnstiles for earlier matches that season but by 1997 / 1998 that had risen to almost half a million with the introduction of teams meeting on a home and away basis in the Pool rounds. The five Pools of four guaranteed each team a minimum of six games and the three quarter-final play-off matches all added up to a bumper 70-match tournament, Bath and Brive meeting three times in all.
The decisive winner-takes-all third encounter was in the final at Stade Lescure in Bordeaux and the majority of the capacity 36,500 crowd were left stunned when cup holders Brive were pipped by a point by the BATH battlers in a contest of raw tension.
The voluntary absence of the English clubs in season 1998/9 meant Bath were unable to defend the crown they won in that 19-18 thriller, the 16 remaining teams taking part in four Pools of four. French clubs filled top spot in three of the groups but this was to be ULSTER'S greatest triumph in their history as they beat Toulouse (twice) and the then reigning French champions Stade Français Paris on their way to a fairytale final in Dublin against surprise French finalists Colomiers. A capacity Lansdowne Road crowd of 49,000 paid IR£700,000 to watch a match for which the "sold out" signs had gone up 10 days earlier.
For the first time four different nations - England, Ireland, France and Wales - made it through to the 1999/2000 semi-finals. Munster's sensational defeat of Toulouse in Bordeaux ended France's record of having contested every final and NORTHAMPTON SAINTS' victory over Llanelli made them the third different English club to make it to the climax of the tournament. And the new Millennium saw the Saints end over a century of patient waiting for their first major title as a then record crowd of 68,441 turned Twickenham into a carnival as Pat Lam's patched up side beat Munster 9-8 in a gripping final. Munster flanker David Wallace became the first forward to score a Heineken Cup final try but the boot of fly half Paul Grayson sent the Saints class of 2000 marching into the record books. Leicester Tigers know all about the heartbreak of falling at the final hurdle, beaten by Brive in that 1997 final and then by Wasps in 2007, but now they also knew the thrill of winning Europe's most coveted cup.
England supplied two of the semi-finalists - the Tigers and Gloucester - with Munster and French champions Stade Français also reaching the last four. Both semi-finals were tight affairs, Munster going down by a point 16-15 to Stade Français in Lille and Leicester beating Gloucester 19-15 at Vicarage Road, Watford. The final, at Parc des Princes, Paris, attracted a full house of 44,000 who created a cauldron of noise and colour that had seldom been seen or heard before and they were treated to a thriller with the result in the balance right up until the final whistle. LEICESTER TIGERS outscored the Paris club three tries to none - centre Leon Lloyd scoring two and flanker Neil Back becoming the second forward to get among Heineken Cup final try-scorers - to walk off the 34-30 winners and become the sixth cup winners. And it stayed at just six when the Heineken Cup was returned to the Welford Road trophy cabinet on 25 May, 2002.
Munster, who suffered Heineken Cup final heartbreak for the second time in three years, got to the showpiece occasion the hard way with quarter-finals and semi-finals victories on French soil against Stade Français and Castres Olympique. The quarter-final triumph in Paris was only the third away success in the tournament at the quarter-finals stage but, as the Heineken Cup has matured, so have the teams and there have now been 12 such away days from the 48 quarter-finals played as the teams have come to grips with the challenge of playing away. But it had required a wide-angled 58 metre penalty goal from Tim Stimson, not to mention the aid of both crossbar and upright, for Leicester to pip Llanelli in the last four, the Scarlets having already halted the Tigers' tournament winning run at the 11-match mark in the Pool stages. However, they were there again and, with not a spare seat in the Millennium Stadium, the then tournament record 74,600 crowd - not to mention the millions of armchair viewers - witnessed tries from Geordan Murphy and Austin Healey as LEICESTER TIGERS clinched that historic second title in possibly the most gripping and absorbing final of the lot.
ERC 15 (1995 - 2010)
A microsite dedicated to celebrating the 1st 15 years of European Club Rugby