This weekend the 2019 European Cup finals weekend made it’s way to Newcastle, England in the week the city mourned the loss of Premiership Rugby. But it was still a party atmosphere with England, Ireland and France all represented across the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals. Thankfully, the matches themselves did not disappoint. Clermont Auvergne won their first European final in 12 years to claim the Challenge Cup while Saracens overcame Leinster in a gripping Champions Cup final in Newcastle.
2019 European Cup Finals
Last Word on Rugby’s James Barker looks at the highlights of these spectacles, and takes a nostalgic view at the best previous finals in both competitions. Will the 2019 European Cup finals live long in the memory?
Champions Cup Final – Leinster 10 vs Saracens 20
The final spectacle that most people wanted to see, and they got the final they wanted. It was, as expected, a hugely physical affair. A low scoring battle; testament to the sides’ defensive qualities. These teams dominated the semi-finals and were deserved finalists. Ultimately it was another English triumph over Ireland in 2019 that allowed Saracens to claim their third Champions Cup final in four seasons and cement their name in European history. Even when they went 10-0 down after a Maro Itoje yellow card and a Tadhg Furlong try, you could sense that was not the end of it.
The try from Sean Maitland right at the end of the first half was vital, and the men in black went on to score a further 13 unanswered points to claim the title. The sight of Leinster unable to get out their own 22 with the clock on zero, and nothing but pride to play for said it all.
How will this Saracens vs Leinster go down in Champions Cup final history? Here are three memorable European Cup finals from the past 15 years that set the benchmark.
2004 – Wasps 27 vs Toulouse 20
Two powerhouses at the peak of their powers. Fittingly then the match was tied 20-20 in the final five minutes. What happened next is one of the most recalled moments from a European final…
2011- Leinster 33 vs Northampton Saints 22
The greatest comeback in European finals history. Northampton, only four years after Premiership relegation, scored three first half tries to lead 22-6 at the break. But a certain young Irish fly-half was to lead the fightback and score 28 points in a man-of-the-match performance.
2015 – Clermont Auvergne 18 vs RC Toulon 24
A repeat of the 2013 final and a shot at a hat trick of titles for Toulon. This was the first final of the new European Rugby Champions Cup format the two lineups were true international quality. Having missed it by a point in their first Heineken Cup final, les Auvergnais were determined to avoid another crushing final defeat.
[commentary in French]
Challenge Cup Final – Clermont Auvergne 36 vs La Rochelle 16
The all-French final in the Challenge Cup went as expected in Clermont’s favour but it was still an entertaining affair. A tight opening quarter saw the teams trade penalties, whilst Clermont suffered the loss of Morgan Parra. Damien Penaud cut through a broken La Rochelle defence to slide in and open up a points gap that was never really threatened. 13-6 at half time was nearly as close as it came.
The largest crowd for a Challenge Cup final in the UK (attendance 28,438) were treated to some classic French open play on second half. They also witnessed a thrilling Clermont maul drive over from the 22 with Fritz Lee the man at the bottom. Man-mountain Uini Antonio pulled one back for La Rochelle but Wesley Fofana sealed it, diving on a grubber kick under the posts.
Clermont, so often beaten finalists, will be relieved they were able to control the game from start to finish and claim the title. They will return to the big boys tournament next season and you would expect them to be able to reach the finals weekend again.
Three previous finals that weren’t so straight forward for the favourite include:
2006 – Gloucester 36 vs London Irish 34 (AET)
A real thriller. Gloucester had led for the majority of the match and were 31-19 up with ten minutes to go. But this London Irish side, featuring stellar names including Delon Armitage, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Mike Catt and Olivier Magne found back admirably to force extra time. Exiles’ kicker Barry Everitt could’ve won it with the conversion but almost became the hero in extra time. We catch up with the action at this point:
2010- Cardiff Blues 28 vs RC Toulon 21
The Toulon era of dominance didn’t all go smoothly. Despite playing the 2009/10 final in Marseille, just 60km or so from their home ground, and fielding the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Johnny Wilkinson, Cardiff Blues delivered the first European trophy for a Welsh region.
2011 – Harlequins 19 vs Stade Francais 18
A Harlequins match in Eurovision wouldn’t be complete without a dramatic Nick Evans kick, particularly against the men in pink from Paris. Some outstanding drop goals, including one from Mathieu Basteraud, looked to have sealed the trophy for Stade. However Quins, who had beaten Munster at Thomond Park in the semi finals, had other ideas.
Were the 2019 European Cup Finals the best yet?
A final, as we have seen, can be remembered for many things. It doesn’t have to be the one with the most tries, or the closest score. With these picks spread out over 15 years, the context of achievements also must be taken into account.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images