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European Cup: 18 years on

Tue, 07 Jan 2014 18:14
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We felt like pioneers
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Some things don't change in the European Cup. On January 7, 1996, Guy Noves was preparing his Toulouse team to take on Cardiff in the inaugural European 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 European Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, May 24.

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 European Cup, with the winners likely to top Pool Three and clinch a coveted quarterfinal slot.

That first Final was game four in the European Cup for Noves and Toulouse. Sunday's match will be their 136th.

On August 26, 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 semifinals. 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, Tuesday'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 European 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 18-21 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 European 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 flyhalf, 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 flyhalf, Christophe Deylaud, to clinch the first of Toulouse's four European crowns.

"The European 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 European Cup and European 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 Final with the European Challenge Cup decider at Cardiff Arms Park kicking off Europe's unique weekend festival of club rugby on Friday, May 23, followed by the European Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, May 24.

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