Before last weekend's Heineken Cup final many pundits were touting Clermont as potentially the best team to ever win the tournament. After all, no team had won all their games since the tournament switched to the 24 team format and few sides swept though their campaign playing such breathtaking rugby. But Clermont bottled it on the day, leaving the question of who is the best side to win the cup up for debate. We sifted through the last 18 seasons of European rugby to bring you an unscientific power ranking of the ten best winners.
10. Toulon 2013
Did they deserve to win the final? Absolutely not. Does this mean they aren't a great side? Also, absolutely not. They arguably have the strongest panel to ever win the tournament and most of their players would walk into any club side in the world. They deserve credit for upsetting Clermont but let's not get ahead of ourselves, they were only 3 point underdogs so it's not really David slaying Goliath. More like Goliath being slayed by a slightly smaller ogre/giant. But they make the list because they can play to a variety of styles (although they generally play the one that starts at number 1 and ends at number 10). In the pool stages they put points on teams with ease and when the games got tighter in the knockout stages they used Wilkinson and their pack to grind out wins. The fact that this quality was missing from Clermont's game probably justifies their place on the list. Although this guy almost made me rethink it.
9. Leinster 2012
The reason they aren't any higher is simple: they just weren't tested enough. They came out of a pool consisting of Montpellier, Glasgow and Bath, none of which are top class. They drew an awful Cardiff side in the quarter-final which resulted in a ridiculously easy win. The game in Bordeaux against Clermont is the reason they make the list. They took the French side on in every aspect of the game and scored one of the tries of the season in the process. The on the line defence at the end was what won them the trophy.
The final was a complete damp squib. Yes, Leinster played quite well but Ulster never really showed up on the day and made it very easy for Leinster.
8. Brive 1998
Sometimes we forget in Ireland but the Heineken Cup existed before Munster burst on the scene in 2000. This Brive side was the pick of the early winners. They had dangerous strike runners in the backline in the two Sebastians, Viars and Carrat and had the reliable Christophe Lamaison to kick their goals (Lamaison is actually France's record point scorer with the low tally of 380, which shows just how much they struggle to produce quality tens). Their win in the final against Leicester in Welford Road was one of the best team performances in the tournament's history, outscoring the English side by four tries to zero.
Their pack could mix it up as well. This was from the year after their triumph from a game against Pontypridd.
7. Munster 2006
Munster's win in 2006 encapsulated everything the province had gone through over the previous six years. There was the opening pool defeat in Sale that jeopardized their chances of qualification, there was a miracle match like performance in the return fixture and who could forget their utter annihilation of Leinster in the semi final. It is easy to look at that game now and say Munster were by far the better side but in the build up Leinster were being talked up to a massive extent after their win over Toulouse.
Munster stuttered a bit in the final but ultimately deserved their breakthrough. It was the last hurrah for a lot of the team and it was fitting that many of the less flash players like Kelly, Horgan and Halstead got their rewards before being ushered out for the New Zealand contingent two years later. Poor Serge Betsen never recovered from being bamboozled by Peter Stringer.
6. Toulouse 2010
The only team to knock Leinster out of the Heineken Cup over a four year period was a star studded bunch. A backline that contained Clerc, Medard, Jauzion and Poitrenaud couldn't be contained by anyone that year. They were lucky that they got the only top class season of David Skrela's career and he was immense in both the semi final against Leinster and the final against Biarritz.
We know Cian Healy as an unstoppable bulldozer now but in 2010 he had to be taken off in the first half because he was being obliterated in the scrum by the Toulouse pack. They would be higher except they almost pulled a Clermont in the final against Biarritz when they should have won by 20.
5. London Wasps 2004
One of the more underrated sides because of Poitrenaud's brain fart but this Wasps team had real quality.
Their pack had Joe Worsley, Simon Shaw ( who was around 40 even in 2004) and Lawrence Dallaglio while their backline with established stars like Josh Lewsey and journeymen like Frasier Walters produced the season of their lives. They got this high on the rankings for winning the best game in the history of the tournament. I stood on the south stand that day and had heat stroke at half time. No joke. Well, maybe a joke but it was ridiculously hot. Here are the last few minutes. You're welcome.
4. Toulouse 2005
The 2005 triumph was their second in three years as well as their third straight final and as we saw earlier, they were a Poitrenaud clanger away from maybe doing a three in a row. This Toulouse team had bruisers like Trevor Brennan, Fabien Pelous and Wiliam Servat to strangle the opposition and it proved for quite a tedious and low scoring final. But the rest of their play that year was exceptional; Freddy Michalak was expertly pulling the strings at 10 and Gareth Thomas had his best season. Should be remembered that they went away to Leicester for the semi final in Martin Johnson's farewell season and absolutely smashed them.
3. Munster 2008
Ranking the top 3 was tough, especially because the 2009 Munster team was better than this one. But give Kidney and co credit for revamping the game plan to include expansive rugby while maintaining the throttling forward power. Mafi, Tipoki and Howlett were exceptional while the return of Alan Quinlan from injury was like making a marquee signing itself. His man of the match performance in the final was classic Quinlan, including him goading Fabien Pelous into getting sin binned.
Their performance as an 8 seed to knock out Gloucester at Kingsholm was one of their best ever. Go to 20.30 for Howlett's great try.
2. Leinster 2011
In this campaign they beat Clermont, Saracens, Racing Metro, Leicester, Toulouse and Northampton. Spot any weak sides there? Their only loss was actually one of their best displays. Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley filled in excellently at centre as Leinster came away from Clermont with a losing bonus point.
There were some memorable games along the way, their win over Toulouse was a classic. It was the two best teams in the tournament going blow for blow.
Clermont are rarely manhandled like they were at the Aviva in 2011.
Everyone always talks about the great Leinster comeback but had they not been able to turn it around it would have been an even bigger choke than Clermont last weekend. Leinster fans were already planning for the victory parade before kick off.
1. Leicester 2002
This team epitomised knockout rugby. Their pack was terrifying: Johnson, Cockerill, Rowntree, Back, Moody and Kay. Their forwards suffocated the opposition, literally at times while their backline was good enough to exploit any opportunities. This was when Geordan Murphy was at his peak and Austin Healey always seemed to show up when he needed him. In fairness, you could have the top 3 in any order and you probably wouldn't get much argument. For better or for worse, "the hand of Back" will always be a reminder that Leicester would do whatever it takes to win.