The birth of the Heineken Cup as we take a ‘bizarre’ trip down memory lane to Bucharest

Lawrence Nolan
The Heineken Cup trophy.

The Heineken Cup trophy.

With the Champions Cup looming large in rugby’s relentless schedule, we take a look back at some classic games from Europe’s flagship competition, starting with the first match of them all.

Halloween 1995. A year in which rugby had already changed irreversibly. Sold its soul for some, moved with the times for others. The end of amateurism was compared in some quarters like the fall of the communist regime in Eastern Europe: there one day, gone the next, and with fear, uncertainty, opportunity and excitement all jostling for position.

Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp deal to create Super Rugby meant that those three southern hemisphere nations got a solid kick-start with an exciting, glamourous shiny new competition. Nothing so fabulous happened in the north. The Five Nations committee decided a cross-border competition would also be a good idea, but the English clubs were quite happy with their Premiership and refused to change their schedule to allow it, thanks very much, while Scotland simply decided it was a step too far for their clubs. For now. Super Rugby this new competition was not.

Three places unfilled

That left teams from Ireland, France and Wales, but even in France – where the top league was even more murderously long than it is now – the reception was lukewarm. Ireland entered three provincial teams (what a masterstroke that has proved to be in retrospect), Wales entered the top two club teams from its championship and cup winners, as did France. But that left three places unfilled. Italy’s federation, already campaigning hard for the national team to join the Six Nations, helped Benetton Treviso and Milan to fill two of them, while Romanian champions Farul Constanta took the final spot.

It was all a little dicey and disorganised, but the announcement in early October that the tournament would be sponsored by Heineken gave it all a great boost and interest – as well as TV coverage – began to grow.

The teams were divided into four pools of three, but inflexible domestic schedules meant that the group matches spanned seven weeks, with a game somewhere on nearly all of them. Teams played each other once only, and with only one of the three qualifying, the opening match was almost a knockout. Bonus points were still years away too.

But the die was cast. And so Toulouse schlepped a squad of players and a couple of staff all the way across Europe to the Black Sea resort of Constanta, a city of some 250,000 souls, 3,000 of whom rocked up to see the locals take on a glittering array of French stars, including Emile Ntamack and Thomas Castaignede in the backs and the formidable Christian Califano up front, among others.

The best account of it all – finding video evidence the game ever took place is close to impossible – comes from Welsh referee Robert Davies, who was the man in the middle of it all.

Describing a 120-mile minibus journey to Bucharest that took five hours down roads full of carts being pulled by donkeys, Davies told the Western Mail that: “Every now and then the curtain would pull back on a cart and a child would shine a torch our way.

“At the ground there were more military police than spectators, with barking Alsatian dogs on leads.

“To the best of my knowledge, there was just one press-man in attendance, Terry Godwin, and he seemed to double up as the match commissioner!

“There were three Welsh officials — myself, Jim Bailey from Loughor and Huw Lewis, who lived in Bridgend — plus Terry and a marketing man called Charles who used to be a chorister. We headed out to Bucharest feeling we were stepping into the unknown.”

The game passed off easily enough, especially for the visitors, who romped home to a 54-10 win. “Toulouse just had so much class. They were everything they promised to be and ran out comfortable winners,” continued Davies.

But while Toulouse had to nip off to a charter flight after the game and couldn’t stay for the buffet, Davies was not in such a hurry, experiencing instead what could almost pass for a modern day cliché!

A bizarre evening

“We were taken back to Bucharest and went to a club that resembled the London Palladium. There were dancers, magicians and singers but the only people in the audience were the five of us. It was more than a bit bizarre,” he recounted.

“At one point several ladies of the night appeared but, as they used to say in the newspapers, we made our excuses and left.

“I still have the match programme, a bit of cardboard bent in two, and other memorabilia from the game. It’s one to tell the grandchildren about.”

Modest beginnings, but for Toulouse, the start of a mission which culminated in a nervy 21-18 extra-time win over Cardiff. Most importantly though, the first steps towards a bona fide premier cross-border competition in Europe. How far it’s come.

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