To celebrate the 15th season of the Heineken Cup, Heineken ambassador Rob Howley takes a look back at the hundreds of games played in the previous 14 seasons, and picks his three favourite memories from the competition.
Neil Back's 'hand of god' to help Leicester retain the trophy in 2002, or his teammate Austin Healey's magic to win the trophy the year previously don't make the cut, neither does Rob's own instinctive pounce to help Wasps steal the trophy away from Toulouse in 2004. Also missing from Rob's shortlist are the near flawless kicking displays of Bath's Jon Callard and Ulster's David Humphries to help Bath and Ulster become the first English and Irish champions of the tournament in 1998 and 1999 respectively. So what are Rob's favourite Heineken Cup moments:
1)Munster vs Wasps - semi final, April 25 2004
Without a doubt, this has to be one of the greatest matches in Heineken Cup history and I was lucky enough to be part of a very very special game of rugby, coming out on the winning side only after an epic 80+ minutes of frenetic drama.
This tie is sometimes over-shadowed by our heroic performance to beat Toulouse in the final, but none of that would have been possible if it hadn't been for our ability to dig deep when the chips were down in the last 15 minutes at Landsdowne Road. My memories of the day include the fact that the sun was shining, which isn't always the case when you travel to Dublin, and the game had absolutely everything for the fans, including 69 points, seven tries and four yellow cards. The fact that we prevailed was much down to our captain Lawrence Dallaglio, who inspired us to comeback from 10 points down with 10 minutes remaining, and the two yellow cards for O'Callaghan and Hennderson in that dramatic final act. Trevor Leota went down in Wasps folklore with his winning try, and so we marched on to Twickenham to claim the trophy. Breathless, thrilling rugby at it's very best.
2)Cardiff vs Leicester - semi final, May 2 2009
This was a game that represented everything that is good about the Heineken Cup - a massive cross border clash between two giants in their respective leagues coming together at one of the greatest stadiums in the world, the Millennium Stadium. The game itself was an absolute thriller, with Cardiff's two-try last gasp comeback sending the Welsh crowd into ecstasy.
Of course all that was then forgotten by what followed when, for the first time in a game of this magnitude, the result was decided by a penalty shoot out. Personally, I am not a fan of the method, and don't feel you should have the match decided by forwards kicking goals, but for the neutral supporter you can't deny the dramatic nature of this conclusion, as Jordan Crane slotted the winner to break Welsh hearts. It's likely never to be seen again in this competition, but you can't deny the nerve-jangling, nail-biting drama provided on a sunny day in South Wales.
3)Toulouse vs Llanelli Scarlets - Pool 5, December 16 2006
To win the Heineken Cup, it often takes one season defining, heroic performance, often in the backyard of a French powerhouse such as Perpignan, Clermont or Toulouse. Down the years, there have been some very special performances by Munster, Leinster but I've picked out a Welsh team in Scarlets for their bonus point victory in 2006. They may not have gone on to win the trophy but for sheer, unbelievable rugby, played in a dazzling style, their comeback in this game from 31-10 down takes some beating.
The Welsh side weren't given a hope when they travelled to South West France, and yet were able to stun the three time winners with Regan King giving a virtuoso second half performance alongside Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones. The fact that the home crowd applauded the Scarlets from the field says all about arguably the best Heineken Cup fightback in history.