... LEINSTER made it a clean sweep for the Irish provinces when they won the 2009 Heineken Cup final to follow in the footsteps of Ulster Rugby (1999) and Munster (2006 and 2008) in lifting European club rugby's most prestigious trophy. Leo Cullen's Leinster denied double winners Leicester Tigers a hat-trick of titles by running out 19-16 winners in front of a full house at Murrayfield on 23 May 2009, with outstanding back row forward Rocky Elsom a clear-cut winner of the man-of-the-match award. Jamie Heaslip got Leinster's only try with the boots of Jonathan Sexton (11 points) and Brian O'Driscoll doing the rest. Leinster also ended Munster's triple title hopes along the way, beating their arch rivals 25-6 in a Croke Park semi-final watched by 82,208 fans - a world record crowd for a club rugby match. It was after having edged out Harlequins away winning 6-5 at the Quarter Finals and some wonderful tries in the pool stages when at home against Wasps and Castres as well as Berating Edinburgh home and away in the pool stages, saw Leinster legend O' Driscoll reignite the club game with sparking prowess early in the 08/09 season.
And the other semi-final also went into the record books as Leicester finally booked their place in Edinburgh after winning the game's first penalty shoot-out 7-6 after they and Cardiff Blues had remained deadlocked at 26-26 after extra time. It was almost as close in the quarter-finals with Leinster winning 6-5 at Harlequins and Leicester edging it 20-15 over domestic rivals Bath Rugby. With attendances up virtually everywhere, it all added up to well over one million fans watching a Heineken Cup campaign for the first time as the fans flocked to the 79 tournament matches.
Before all that MUNSTER had become the fourth team to win the Heineken Cup twice when they beat treble champions Toulouse 16-13 at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, on Saturday, 24 May, 2008. Under ERC European Ranking system - introduced at the end of the 2007 / 2008 season to determine the make-up of the six Pools of four teams - the 24 teams that qualify for the tournament are divided into four Tiers of six teams each based on their European performances over the past four seasons. The teams from each Tier level are kept apart in the Pools.And that meant the 13th Heineken Cup final was a true clash of the giants of European club rugby, Munster ranked No 1 and Toulouse No 2.
In keeping with their top two rankings it was nip and tuck all the way with No 8 Denis Leamy scoring Munster's try and wing Yves Donguy crossing for Toulouse with the boot of Ronan O'Gara - the tournament's record points scorer and the only player to top 1,000 Heineken Cup points - edging it for the Irish province in front of the sea of red of Munster's traveling army of fans. And Munster, appearing in the knock-out stages for a 10th successive season, did the double the hard way. They were on the road all the way, winning 16-3 at Gloucester Rugby in the quarter-finals and then 18-16 against Saracens at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. For their part Toulouse beat Cardiff Blues 41-17 at Le Stadium and then London Irish 21-15 at Twickenham before going down to Munster in the 13th final and match No 898.
And Toulouse were also there for match No 1 after it all began in the unlikely surrounds of the Romanian Black Sea resort of Constanta back on 31 October, 1995. In just 14 years since then it has taken Euro rugby by storm, catching the imagination of players and supporters like a forest fire. Pool stage attendances for last season totaled a record 721,240 while it is also the vital higher stepping stone between domestic tournaments and the international stage.
The tournament was launched in the summer of 1995 on the initiative of the then Five Nations Committee - now the Six - in order to provide a new level of professional cross-border competition. Twelve teams from Ireland, France, Wales, Italy and Romania took part in the 1995/1996 tournament, competing in four Pools of three with the group winners going directly into the semi-finals.
In the final, played in front of a crowd of 21,800 at Cardiff Arms Park on 6 January, 1996, TOULOUSE required extra time before beating Cardiff 21-18 to become the first champions of Europe. While that first tournament consisted of just 15 matches, England and Scotland joined the competition in 1996/7 to make it a truly European event.
It had required all the resolve and optimism of the ERC Directors to initially keep the tournament afloat but by Year 2 the hard groundwork had been done and the top quality rugby had taken a grip on those players and supporters.
ERC 15 (1995 - 2010)
A microsite dedicated to celebrating the 1st 15 years of European Club Rugby