European Champions Cup: Five classic finals – which was best?

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Johnny Sexton, Row Howley and Thomas Castaignede celebrate becoming champions of Europe

Last year’s finalists Leinster against English top dogs Exeter? Championship-bound defending champions Saracens taking on an Ulster side looking for their first title this millennium? A mouth-watering all-French clash between Racing 92 and Toulouse?

Who knows what storyline this year’s Champions Cup final would, maybe still will, throw up.

The final was supposed to be held this Saturday at the atmospheric Stade Velodrome in Marseille.

Instead the coronavirus pandemic, and measures to try and combat it, have left the competition stuck at the quarter-final stage.

As we wonder what might have been, take a look back at five classic finals that delivered drama by the bucketload, and vote for the one you think was the best.

Toulouse first champions after extra-time victory

Toulouse, including Castaignede (far right) and Ntamack (third from right), celebrate their victory

1996 Cardiff 18-21 Toulouse

Hot on the heels of the game turning professional, the first elite European club competition was launched, although English and Scottish clubs sat out the first season as the wrangling over the new money began. Some would argue it has not stopped since.

Cardiff’s hopes of grabbing the inaugural crown at Arms Park were dented as Toulouse crossed for two tries in the opening 10 minutes, with the irrepressible Thomas Castaignede, just 20, and scrum-half Jerome Cazalbou scoring.

Adrian Davies’ boot gradually brought Cardiff back into the contest however as their forward dominance delivered a string of penalty shots.

Jonathan Davies, recently lured back from rugby league and introduced off the bench at half-time, could not unlock the Toulouse defence, and Cardiff had to rely on Davies landing his fifth penalty in the 83rd minute to finally level things up at 15-15 and extend the match into 30 minutes of extra time.

With both teams tiring however, it was Davies’ opposite number Christophe Deylaud who landed the decisive kick to make Toulouse the competition’s first winners.

“This is my most important victory. It makes certain that the European Cup is here to stay and it will be even better next year when England and Scotland are involved,” said Toulouse wing Emile Ntamack.

Healy inspires dramatic fightback in Paris

Leicester’s Leon Lloyd goes over for the decisive score of the 2001 final

2001 Stade Francais 30-34 Leicester

For 79 minutes, this seemed to be the Diego Dominguez final. The diminutive Italy international had landed 10 kicks from all ranges and angles to have his side 30-27 ahead as the match went into the final minute.

Leicester, who had already wrapped up a third successive English title and fielded a formidable pack including Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Graham Rowntree and Martin Corry, were going to come up just short.

But then Austin Healy, switched to fly-half from his customary scrum-half role late in game, seized the match by the scruff.

The England international, who could only play after dosing up with painkillers to ease an injury to his right knee, sliced through the Stade midfield, drew the final man and put centre Leon Lloyd into the corner with a perfectly weighted pass off his weaker hand.

It was a magnificent heist in partisan Paris. Tigers officials had considered seeking a relocation of the final, which was staged at the Parc de Princes, directly across the street from Stade’s own home ground.

As Lloyd celebrated a game-deciding score by shushing the French fans, they may have been pleased they didn’t.

Wasps snatch victory after Poitrenaud howler

Rob Howley swoops to score the decisive try of the 2004 final

2004 Wasps 27-20 Toulouse

Just over two minutes remaining, the two sides locked together at 20-20 with Toulouse dropping out from their own 22m…

The 2004 final was Le Crunch at club level. Wasps were in the midst of a period in which they would be crowned English champions four times in six seasons. Toulouse were defending European champions and aiming to become the first team to lift the trophy three times.

The two line-ups dripped with razzle-dazzle. Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Joe Worsley and Simon Shaw had all been part of the England’s Rugby World Cup winning effort the previous summer, while Samoan hooker Trevor Leota’s destructive tackling had earned him a cult following and fearsome reputation.

Emile Ntamack, Yannick Jauzion, Frederic Michalak were part of a maverick Toulouse backline, with Fabien Pelous, Trevor Brennan and Jean-Baptiste Poux included in a granite-hard pack.

The match lived up to the billing, a nip-and-tuck affair with Toulouse nibbling back from 20-11 adrift early in the second half to tie things up heading into the final few minutes.

But the match was decided by an eyesore of an error. Rob Howley gathered that late drop-out and punted a nothing-much grubber towards the corner. Toulouse full-back Clement Poitrenaud had it covered but dithered in the hope that the ball would run dead, unaware of Howley closing in fast. Howley dived on the ball, snatching it from Poitrenaud to score as the French international belatedly attempted to scoop it up.

“I do not feel for Poitrenaud,” said Howley. “We were playing for the biggest prize in club rugby and you take whatever comes your way.”

Leinster’s impossible comeback stuns Saints

Johnny Sexton inspired Leinster’s astonishing second-half revival

2011 Leinster 33-22 Northampton

When Leinster traipsed back into the changing rooms at the end of the first half of the 2011 final they were, in Johnny Sexton’s words, “shell-shocked”.

Northampton had scored three unanswered tries, with number eight Phil Dowson followed over the whitewash by Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley. Saints were 22-6 up. Their front row of Soane Tonga’uiha, Hartley and Brian Mujati were ruling the scrum. Leinster were in the mire.

Sexton issued a rallying cry in the bowels of the Millennium Stadium, daring his team to draw on Liverpool’s improbable comeback in football’s version of the same final six years before, believe in the impossible and claim immortality.

He backed up his words with deeds as well. Sexton scuttled over for two quick tries at the start of the second half, converting both, before nailing a long-distance penalty to complete a remarkable turnaround.

Northampton’s lead had been whipped from under them in a little over 15 second-half minutes. They never recovered. Leinster ran out winners, keeping the bewildered Saints scoreless in the second half.

“There was a realisation that we’d worked for nine months and given it all away,” said Sexton.

“We said that if we could get the next score it would really rattle them.”

Record-breaking Saracens defend title

Chris Ashton scored the first try of the final, crossing the line in typically flamboyant style

2017 Clermont 17-28 Saracens

Clermont came into the final as every neutral’s favourite French side. Committed to stereotypically expansive running rugby, perhaps best epitomised by their electric English full-back Nick Abendanon, they had lost two Champions Cup finals in the previous four seasons.

Third time lucky? Unfortunately for the French side you needed more than luck to beat an expensively-assembled Saracens outfit that, after several near misses of its own, was entering the pantheon as one of the greatest club sides ever.

Saracens successfully defended the title and set a new record of 18 successive victories in the competition with a typically clinical performance.

Chris Ashton latched onto an Alex Goode chip ahead to score a record 37th try in the competition after 13 minutes. George Kruis barged over on 22 minutes. Alex Goode ghosted through a hole to make sure in the 72nd minute.

Clermont sparkled intermittently, particularly when Abendanon rounded off a sweeping coast-to-coast score, but could never quite close the gap.

Last May, Saracens beat Leinster to make it three European crowns in four seasons, but the salary cap scandal