South Africa’s welcome pack to Europe: The greatest teams and most imposing venues

saracens Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje and Toulons Bryan Habana Credit: Alamy
saracens Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje and Toulons Bryan Habana Credit: Alamy

Planet Rugby continues the build-up to the dawn of a new era in club rugby that sees the Stormers, Bulls, and Sharks join Europe’s elite in the race for the pinnacle of the game at club level, the Champions Cup.

We delve into the history of the competition and take a look at the best teams to have graced the competition and the most imposing venues.

Best teams in Champions Cup history

Leicester Tigers (2000-2002)

The first team to ever successfully defend the Champions Cup, the Leicester Tigers of the early 2000s were a physically dominant side led by England great Martin Johnson.

The pack consisted of the likes of Graham Rowntree, Dorian West, Johnson, Ben Kay, Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, Richard Cockerill and Neil Back, some of the stars that would go on to win the Rugby World Cup in 2003 with England.

While their pack struck fear into any opposition, they had the backline players to match with Austin Healey, Geordan Murphy out wide, and Freddie Tuilagi, to name a few.

They defeated Stade Francais 34-30 in 2001 and backed that up with a 15-9 win over Munster a year later – Tim Stimpson’s place-kicking playing a significant role in both finals.

Munster (2005-2008)

In 2006, Munster finally claimed their first Champions Cup trophy after falling at the final hurdle in 2000 and 2002 while making the semi-finals three times.

They crashed out in the quarter-finals the following season but returned to the final in 2007 to lift the trophy for a second time.

In both their title-winning seasons, Munster were led by passionate and physical forwards in Anthony Foley and Paul O’Connell and had the ace kicking boot of Ronan O’Gara at fly-half.

O’Gara was crucial to both final wins, scoring 13 points in the 23-19 victory over Biarritz in 2006 with tries from Trevor Halstead and Peter Stringer. He notched up 11 points in the 16-13 win over Toulouse, with Denis Leamy scoring a try.

An uncompromising pack included Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, David Wallace, and Alan Quinlan. At the same time, O’Gara had his Ireland teammate Stringer at scrum-half with dangerous backs that included Ian Dowling and Doug Howlett (for the second title).

Leinster (2008-2012)

Between 2008 and 2012, Leinster went on an incredible run in the Champions Cup, winning three titles and missing out on a final in 2010 to eventual winners Toulouse.

With Joe Schmidt in charge of the Irish giants and generational talents like Brian O’Driscoll, Gordan D’Arcy, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Rob Kearney, it was a perfect recipe for success.

The rise of Jonathan Sexton over this period played a crucial role in the province’s success and eventually saw him usurp O’Gara as Ireland’s starting fly-half.

Sexton scored 11 points in the first final victory over Leicester Tigers, which included a drop goal. O’Driscoll also nudged over a drop goal in the win, with Heaslip scoring Leinster’s only try.

He scored two tries, three conversions and four penalties for a 28-point haul in the 2011 win over Northampton Saints (33-22). He steered the ship in 2012 as Leinster claimed a massive 42-14 win over Ulster in the final.

Toulon (2012-2015)

The only team in the competition’s history to ever claim a three-peat. The Toulon side between 2012 and 2015 was something special.

Often likened to Real Madrid’s Galácticos, Toulon’s squad consisted of some of the greatest players in the history of the sport.

Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau combined at fly-half and inside centre for the French side with an abrasive Mathieu Bastareaud at outside centre.

2007 World Cup winners Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Juan Smith, and Bryan Habana all featured in the squad, as did Argentina legends Juan Martin Hernandez and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.

Wilkinson captained the side in the first two finals, defeating Clermont 16-15 and Saracens 23-6, the latter his final match on British soil.

Former All Black prop Carl Hayman took over the captaincy for the third final, where Toulon beat French rivals Clermont 24-18, completing the three-peat.

Saracens (2015-2019) 

A brutally effective and efficient side, the Saracens‘ team from the mid to late 2010s was renowned for their ruthlessness in the knockout stages of big tournaments. 

The early 2010s set the foundations for success later in the decade as they took the learnings from semi-finals exits in 2013 and 2015 and a runners-up medal in 2014.

A young Owen Farrell, who was beaten by fellow English fly-half Wilkinson two years prior, steered his side to victory over Racing 92, slotting all seven of his penalties in the final of the 2015/16 season. 

A year later, they went back-to-back, defeating Clermont 28-17 in the final thanks to tries from Chris Ashton, George Kruis, and Alex Goode. 

They would miss the opportunity at a three-peat as they fell to a quarter-final defeat to eventual champions Leinster in the quarter-finals and still managed to secure their fourth Premiership trophy.

Saracens claimed their third Champions Cup title in 2019, again doing the Premiership and European double, defeating Leinster 20-10 in the final.

In their most recent campaign, the 2019/20 season, Saracens reached the semi-final but have missed out on the last two campaigns following their relegation from the Premiership in 2020.

Most imposing grounds

Thomond Park (Munster)

Munster are renowned for their travelling supporters in the Champions Cup, but the home support is even more raucous. The Irish heavyweights have been a mainstay in the competition, having played more games (190) than any other side.

They traditionally have an abrasive pack, and pairing that with rowdy supporters drowning out opposition calls makes Thomond Park one of the most difficult stadiums to visit.

Stade Marcel-Michelin (Clermont Auvergne)

The Stade Marcel-Michelin became one of sport’s most feared home grounds during the early 2010s.

A star-studded Clermont team racked up an impressive winning run at their home ground, winning 77 home matches that stretched over four and half years.

The Yellow Army’s supporters pack the stadium, belt out sounds, and wave yellow flags, creating an imposing atmosphere with opinionated fans cheering and jeering the referring decisions.

Like many of the French stadiums, remaining silent for the kickers is not seen as a sign of respect, and opposition kickers can expect an explosion of noise and whistles while lining up a shot at goal.

Although the current Clermont side is a shadow of the team from the 2010s, visiting the Marcel-Michelin will still be a challenge for any team.

Stade Marcel-Deflandre (La Rochelle)

A newer addition to the list than the famed Thomond Park and Stade Marcel-Michelin.

La Rochelle have quickly solidified themselves as one of the top sides in the competition claiming their first title last season.

The small town of just over 75,000 people pack into the 15,000 seater stadium for every home game. The club have sold out over 70 consecutive home matches.

The rugby-mad town makes the Stade Marcel-Deflandre one of the most imposing stadiums to visit.

Welford Road (Leicester Tigers)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Leicester Tigers were a dominant force in the Premiership and Champions Cup. As with most successful teams, they were incredibly tricky to defeat at home.

The 25,000 seater stadium is renowned for the roar of passionate supporters, usually in full voice for European weekends regardless of the weather.

READ MORE: South Africa’s welcome pack to Europe: A look into the record books

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