Top 10 HC clashes
By Ben Hampshire - Follow me: @BH92
As the Heineken Cup returns to our screens on Friday evening, Sky Sports take a look at some of the classic continental encounters to whet the appetite for coming months.
Leicester 15-9 Munster - 2002
The Tigers arrived at the Millennium Stadium for the final with the opportunity to become the first side to win back-to-back European trophies, having beaten Stade Francais 34-30 at the Parc des Princes the previous term. It appeared to be the dream start for the Midlanders as Freddie Tuilagi crossed over with less a minute on the clock, only for referee Joel Jutge to bring play back for an earlier illegal push.
Ronan O'Gara got the scoreboard ticking for Munster from the tee but the match was in desperate need of a try. Leicester's own Irishman Geordan Murphy was on hand to provide just that after an excellent dummy from Tim Stimpson. The game was evenly poised when Austin Healey provided a sidestepping master-class before dotting down to ensure the Tigers became the first side to ever retain the Heineken crown.
Munster 33-6 Gloucester - 2003
Munster entered their first group stage clash against Gloucester knowing the proverbial mountain lay before them. With a place in the quarter-finals at stake, the Irish province needed to beat the Premiership side by 27 points and score four tries in the process if they were to reach the last eight.
The atmosphere in Thomond Park was deafening as Mark O'Driscoll and Mossie Lawlor crossed before a John Kelly brace sealed a 33-6 victory and a place in rugby folklore for the Munster-men in what was soon released on video under the title 'The Miracle Match'.
Munster 32-37 Wasps - 2004
Munster entered the 2004 semi-final having twice made the last two and seemingly favourites, against a London Wasps side who had already come further than ever before. It was Wasps who enjoyed the better start however, as Stuart Abbott released Josh Lewsey to touch down the opening score before a Paul Volley try and an Alex King penalty gave the visitors a narrow half-time lead.
Despite trailing 15-17 at half-time, Munster led by 10 points with 15 minutes to go after Anthony Foley and captain Jim Williams both went over for tries. But, with seconds ticking away, King converted Tom Voyce's try before Trevor Leota scored the winning try six minutes into injury-time as Wasps booked their first European final date.
Munster 31-9 Sale - 2006
Sale crossed the waters to Ireland with their unbeaten Heineken Cup record to defend, but faced a daunting task, with Munster going for 24 wins in as many Heineken Cup clashes at Thomond Park. The stakes were high and so was the animosity with Sale's Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and Chris White both spending time in the sin bin, along with Munster's Marcus Horan, as fracas broke out in both halves.
The Irishmen ran in three first-half tries with Anthony Foley, Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy all crossing, while Ronan O'Gara dissected the uprights five times as Munster amassed a 24-9 lead at the break. It stayed that way until David Wallace broke the shackles to cross in the 81st minute and condemn Sale to their first European defeat while the hosts secured a bonus point, along with their desired home quarter-final. Sale's lone consolation from an evening of wreckage was they didn't have to return to Limerick in the last eight.
Bristol 17-0 Stade Francais - 2007
Bristol fans lining the stands of the Memorial Ground in mid-November would be forgiven for expecting their side to struggle with French champions Stade Francais in town. However, an extremely wet night in the West Country played into the hands of the hosts as free-flowing rugby became somewhat a distance memory for both sides.
Two penalties courtesy of Dave Hill's boot were the only points in the first half and it did not get easier for the visitors in the second period as Bristol pinned them back and denied all attacking threats. The hosts remained dogged throughout and their persistence reaped rewards in the closing stages as Rob Higgitt and Neil Brew pressurised Brian Liebenberg into a mistake before combining to send Brew over in the corner.
Biarritz 6-7 Northampton - 2007
With a relegation battle to contend with on the home front, few gave Northampton Saints hope of avoiding heavy defeat, let alone victory as they travelled to the South West of France. Despite already losing to the French side twice in the group stages, the Saints stood on the cusp of a Heineken Cup semi-final and went on to produce one of the greatest European upsets.
In a low-scoring affair, French scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili scored the hosts' only points from the tee as the Saints repelled every Biarritz attack with gusto. With the score at 6-0 on the hour mark, Robbie Kydd intercepted the ball from Yachvili before racing 60 metres to the try line to slide home the only try of the match. Carlos Spencer slotted home the conversion as Saints completed a sensational display to send the previous season's finalists crashing out in their own back yard.
Harlequins 19-17 Stade Francais - 2008
Pool Four of the 2008 Heineken Cup proposed some thrilling ties from the off and a muddy Stoop night did not fail to disappoint. Stade Francais came to the capital looking to retain their place at the summit of the group and took an early lead thanks to Noel Oelschig, who crossed for the opening try before adding two penalties to his tally as the visitors led 11-3.
Jordan Turner-Hall responded for the Quins before fly-half Nick Evans added the subsequent extras and a three-pointer of his own to seize the initiative. Oelschig's third penalty of the night gave the visitors a 14-13 lead at the break before Evans nudged the hosts back in front after the restart. Juan Martin Hernandez's second-half drop-goal appeared to have won the game for the Parisians but it was Evans who had the final say when his last-gasp drop-goal attempt seared through the posts as the hosts clinched a dramatic victory from the clutch of defeat.
Cardiff 26-26 Leicester - 2009
Cardiff Blues entered their 2009 semi-final showdown with Leicester looking to re-write history and become the first Welsh region to grace a European final. The Blues found themselves under the cosh for the majority of the game but fought back from 26-12 down after 74 minutes as Tom James and Jamie Roberts both touched down to level the scores.
Dramatic scenes ensued as neither side managed to find a winning score during extra time, meaning a place in the Murrayfield final would be decided by a penalty shoot-out. It was Jordan Crane, seizing on a Martyn Williams miss, who held his nerve and landed the sudden-death blow to ensure the Tigers proceeded.
Leinster 33-22 Northampton - 2011
After beating Leicester Tigers 19-16 at Murrayfield to claim their first Heineken Cup crown in 2009, Leinster entered the 2011 final oozing with confidence as they attempted to hold aloft the trophy for a second time in three years. However, early signs suggested there was an upset on the cards as first-half tries from Phil Dowson, Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley gifted underdogs Northampton a 22-6 lead at the interval.
But the 2009 champions launched a devastating blitz of 27 unanswered points inside 26 minutes after the break to overrun the Saints, Jonathan Sexton grabbing two tries and Nathan Hines adding a third. Sexton added 18 points with the boot for a 28-point personal haul to claim the man-of-the-match award as Leinster brought the elite band of clubs who have won the Heineken Cup twice or more up to five.
Northampton 36-51 Munster - 2012
Munster travelled to Franklin Gardens knowing only victory against Northampton Saints would be enough to secure a home quarter-final tie. The start was bleak, however, from the Irishmen as they faltered in discipline at the scrum and referee Roman Poite awarded two first-half penalty tries. However, Ronan O'Gara's kicking was the visitors' saving grace as they entered the break level at 19-19.
Nevertheless, there was nothing that could prepare the Saints for what was to follow as Johne Murphy and BJ Botha touched down for Munster before Ireland winger Simon Zebo ran riot, scoring a hat-trick of tries in half-an-hour as the visitors racked up a half-century and booked their desired home tie.
You can see all 12 matches from the Heineken Cup live on Sky Sports and online in the Heineken Cup Events Centre.