Heineken Cup bigger and better 18 years on

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Heineken Cup bigger and better 18 years on
Some things don’t change in the Heineken Cup. On this day 18 years ago (7 January 1996), Guy Noves was preparing his Toulouse team to take on Cardiff in the inaugural Heineken Cup final.

And this weekend, the evergreen Noves has another big game on his mind as he attempts to keep Toulouse on course for a return to the Welsh capital for the 19th Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, 24 May.

Saracens are the visitors to Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday for what has the makings of a classic European confrontation in the best tradition of the Heineken Cup, with the winners likely to top Pool 3 and clinch a coveted quarter-final slot.

That first final was game four in the Heineken Cup for Noves and Toulouse. Sunday’s match will be their 136th!

Watch footage from the first Heineken Cup final (IRB Total Rugby) CLICK HERE
More match details CLICK HERE

On 26 August 1995, the IRB chairman, Vernon Pugh, declared rugby union an ‘open’ sport. Four days later in Dublin, the Five Nations chairman, Fred McLeod, announced details of a European Cup competition. It was the first attempt at a major, cross-border tournament in Europe run on a professional basis and it immediately captured the imagination of clubs, players, coaches and fans across the continent.

Twelve clubs from Ireland, France, Wales, Italy and Romania took part in the inaugural 1995/96 tournament, competing in four pools of three with the winners qualifying for the semi-finals. From the start, Toulouse, the French champions, targeted the tournament and quickly established themselves as the club to beat.
With four titles and two losing final appearances during his tenure as Toulouse Director of Rugby, Noves’ record is second to none. Can he complete the circle with a return to Cardiff this season?

Sunday’s clash with Saracens will be a strong indication, but for the moment, today’s historic anniversary of the first final at the National Ground, Cardiff Arms Park comes to mind. Toulouse eventually ran out winners after extra-time against Cardiff in a game watched by just under 22,000 spectators.
In the intervening years, as the Heineken Cup has developed into the world’s most competitive club rugby competition, well over 14 million spectators have gone through the turnstiles of more than 100 European stadia.

Some of the players who featured in that 1996 final will tell you it was like stepping into the unknown. Yet, to a man, they all knew they were involved in something special.

“It was a great occasion and a pleasure and an honour to be involved in the first year of something that has grown to become such a spectacular success,” said Jonathan Davies, who played for Cardiff in their 21-18 defeat.

“I’ve played in many cup finals in both codes – WRU Challenge Cup, Rugby League Challenge Cup, World Club Championship and Premiership finals – and this was right up there. It felt like we were in on the ground floor of something special. In many ways it reminded me of playing in the first World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 1987. We felt like pioneers.

“That Toulouse side was very strong and had taken the tournament seriously from the start. The final was the day the rugby world really woke up to talent like Thomas Castaignède, who scored the first try in a Heineken Cup final and also dropped a goal.

“I was disappointed not to start, but came on at half-time to replace Mark Ring. We had our chances to win and it was a shame we couldn’t quite manage to do so in front of our own fans.”

All of Cardiff’s points came from the boot of Wales out half, Adrian Davies, while Toulouse scored two tries. It was 12-6 to the French side at half-time, 15-15 after 80 minutes, and it took a last-gasp penalty from out half, Christophe Deylaud, to clinch the first of Toulouse’s four European crowns.

“The Heineken Cup has been good for rugby in the northern hemisphere,” said Davies. “It has helped Welsh, Irish and Scottish rugby raise standards by exposing their clubs to top class French and English opposition.

“We would never fear going out to play against English, Irish or Scottish sides, but we simply weren’t used to winning against the French. We gradually got there and the exposure Welsh clubs have had to French opposition in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup tournaments eventually enabled the national side to start winning in Paris.”

More than 30,000 tickets have been sold to date for the Cardiff 2014 finals with the Amlin Challenge Cup decider at Cardiff Arms Park kicking off Europe’s unique weekend festival of club rugby on Friday, 23 May, followed by the Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, 24 May.

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