IN THE DECADE from 2001 to 2010, the Heineken Cup was dominated by four teams –- Leicester, Munster, Toulouse and Wasps.
The quartet between them won nine of the 10 tournaments and were runners-up a further five times (with a nod to Biarritz and Stade, who never actually crossed the line).
It was a truism that until you battled past these big guns in a knock-out situation, you had yet to prove yourself. Sale Sharks, Gloucester and Leinster were among those to feel the white rage from Munster after being talked up in advance.
This era is now firmly over.
The Big Four contained players of a similar vintage –- those who started out at the fag end of the amateur era and were the first generation of professionals –- and all four have essentially fallen away at the same time.
Wasps won the tournament as recently as 2007 with an exciting and star-studded line-up and a progressive and driven management team, but when the Worcester Warriors handed them a donut last year, Wasps had none of that 2007 starting lineup in the team, and the coaches were preparing to lead Wales to a second Grand Slam under their tutelage.
Wasps are currently struggling to preserve their Premiership status for next season, and are a salutory lesson in how quickly a team can lose its direction. Look through their current team sheet, and if you’re familiar with more than five names, let us know and we’ll post you out a Barnesy-endorsed Premiership Anorak award. Their demise has been the steepest.
The team they beat when they last won the Cup, domestic rivals Leicester, were runners-up three years ago, and gave Leinster a really tough test last year.
This season, however, they limped home from the type of pool they used to relish with a whimper, and a 40 point beating in Ravenhill. The Tiger team that night contained just three of the XV from the ’07 final — Marcos Ayerza, Geordan Murphy and Oooooooooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi –and it’s fair to say the latter pair won’t be getting better any time soon. The current Tiger setup has lost its way somewhat, and a bloated squad which is low in quality has failed even to maintain its pre-emptive status in a Premership shorn of its international reputation (even Barnesy is struggling to hype it up these days).
Munster built their Heineken Cup dynasty on a grizzled pack and Rog. Of the forwards that played in the Miracle Match, six played again in the 2009 semi-final. And of those six, only Donncha played on Sunday (O’Connell was injured in 2003) – a significant change, and one most notable by the difference in their backrow play.
Munster were semi-finalists in 2010, but Generation Ligind is now disappearing over the sunset with all their experience and nous — they will do well to match that achievement in the next few years. Paulie captures the frustration within the team that they just can’t do what they used to:
“We had the territory to do it, but just one try is disappointing. We need to make better decisions. You just can’t beat yourself. I’m not taking anything away from Ulster, but we just need to be that little bit more clever. It’s what we did in the past.”
In that same 2003 tournament, Toulouse beat Perpignan to win their second title. The spine of the team contained such luminaries as Poitrenaud, Jauzion, Clerc, Bouhilou, Pelous, Poux, Servat — all currently or recently first-choice at Le Stadium. There is a tremendous amount of miles on those clocks, with five Heineken Cup finals and four Top 14 finals in two notoriously attritional compeitions, not to mention one RWC final and two semi-finals for a lot of those names.
The hunger, desire, and will just isn’t there any more, and the fact that most of the names above still start will tell you all you need to know about the next generation, in spite of abundant promise. No doubt the squad is still packed with quality, but they only sparkle in patches. When they lost to Edinburgh it wasn’t really a seismic shock, more of a mild surprise, given Toulouse’ performances this season – changed times.