Each European nation has a different qualifying system, though in total, 24 teams contest the pool stages in six pools of four. According to performances, the number of clubs from each nation changes. The tournament is held from October to May, with various stages scheduled around domestic club competitions.
The 2007-08 tournament was won by Ireland's Munster, who beat Toulouse of France 16–13 in the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Toulouse have been the most successful team, winning the competition three times.
22 places are awarded by country, with each country deciding how to allocate their alloted places:
The remaining two places in the 24-team tournament are allocated as follows:
Regardless of how well they perform domestically, the winners of the Heineken Cup and the European Challenge Cup both qualify for the next year's Heineken Cup, and are awarded places from their countries' allocations.
The Heineken Cup is, generally speaking, the equivalent competition of the UEFA Champions League in professional football, whereas the European Challenge Cup is the equivalent to the secondary UEFA Cup.
A proposal has been made that, in future, rather than Ireland, Wales and Scotland each sending their top-placed teams in the Magners League to the Heineken Cup, the top teams from the league as a whole should be sent, regardless of nationality.
From the 08/09 season, there is more structure to the pools. The competing 24 teams are ranked based on past performance and arranged into four tiers of six teams, with the reigning champion automatically appearing in the top tier. Each pool receives one team at random from each tier; again, this is subject to the restriction that each pool cannot contain more than one team from each competing nation, except where France or England supply seven teams.
Four points are awarded for a win and two points for a draw. A bonus point is awarded for a loss by seven points or fewer, or for scoring four tries or more. The six pool winners (ranked 1-6 by number of points scored) and two best placed runners-up (ranked seven and eight) qualify for the quarter-finals. Teams ranked one to four have home advantage.
The quarter-finals are: team one v team eight; team two v team seven; team three v team six; team four v team five.
The quarter-finals are played at the home stadiums of the higher-seeded clubs, or sometimes at a larger stadium in or near the host team's city. The semi-finals, on the other hand, are always played at nominally neutral venues. Each of the two semi-final venues are in the country of the first team out of the hat when the draw is made. For example, in 2004, Munster v Wasps was played at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, while Toulouse v Biarritz was played in Bordeaux.
However, the neutrality requirement is satisfied simply by the designated home team playing outside of its normal stadium. Both 2005 semifinals were held in the host's home city; Leicester Tigers v Toulouse was held at Walkers Stadium in Leicester, not far from Leicester's normal home of Welford Road, while Stade Français v Biarritz was played at Parc des Princes in Paris, across the street from Stade's normal home field. The semifinal venue must also meet the following additional criteria; it must have a capacity of at least 20,000 and it must be in the same country as the designated home team.
However, the European Rugby Cup, which organises the competition, may allow exceptions, such as with Biarritz, located in a city less than 20km from the Spanish border, being allowed to host their 2006 semi-final across the border at Estadio Anoeta in Donostia-San Sebastián (which is the nearest stadium to Biarritz with a suitable capacity). A similar exception was made for Bourgoin when they hosted Munster in Switzerland at Stade de Genève, Geneva. The final is held at a predetermined site.
|Munster||16 – 13||Toulouse||Millennium Stadium,|
|London Wasps||25 - 9||Leicester Tigers||Twickenham,|
|Munster||23 - 19||Biarritz||Millennium Stadium,|
|Toulouse||18 - 12||Stade Français||Murrayfield,|
|London Wasps||27 - 20||Toulouse||Twickenham,|
|Toulouse||22 - 17||Perpignan||Lansdowne Road,|
|Leicester Tigers||15 - 9||Munster||Millennium Stadium,|
|Leicester Tigers||34 - 30||Stade Français||Parc des Princes,|
|Northampton Saints||9 - 8||Munster||Twickenham,|
|Ulster||21 - 6||Colomiers||Lansdowne Road,|
|Bath||19 - 18||Brive||Stade Lescure,|
|Brive||28 - 9||Leicester Tigers||Cardiff Arms Park,|
|Toulouse||21 - 18|
|Cardiff||Cardiff Arms Park,|
Clubs from England and Scotland joined the competition in 1996-97.. European rugby was further expanded with the advent of the European Challenge Cup for teams that did not qualify for the Heineken Cup. The Heineken Cup now had 20 teams divided into four pools of five. Only Leicester and Brive reached the knock-out stages with 100 per cent records and ultimately made it to the final, Cardiff and Toulouse falling in the semi-finals. After 46 matches, Brive beat Leicester 28-9 in front of a crowd of 41,664 at Cardiff Arms Park, the match watched by an estimated television audience of 35 million in 86 countries.
1997-98 saw the introduction of a home and away format in the pool games. The five pools of four, which guaranteed each team a minimum of six games, and the three quarter-final play-off matches all added up to a 70-match tournament. Brive reached the final again but were beaten late in the game by Bath with a penalty kick. Ironically, English clubs had decided to withdraw from the competition in a dispute over the way it was run.
Without English clubs, the 1998-99 tournament revolved around France, Italy and the Celtic nations. Sixteen teams took part in four pools of four, with Ulster invited into the competition to even up the numbers. French clubs filled the top positions in three of the groups and for the fourth consecutive year a French club, in the shape of Colomiers from the Toulouse suburbs, reached the final. Despite this it was to be Ulster's year as they beat Toulouse (twice) and reigning French champions Stade Français on their way to the final at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Ulster then carried home the trophy after a 21-6 win over Colmiers in front of a capacity 49,000 crowd.
England supplied two of the 2000-01 semi-finalists — Leicester Tigers and Gloucester — with Munster and French champions Stade Francais also reaching the last four. Both semi-finals were close, Munster going down by a point 16-15 to Stade Français in Lille and the Tigers beating Gloucester 19-15 at Vicarage Road, Watford. The final, at Parc des Princes, Paris, attracted a crowd of 44,000 and the result was in the balance right up until the final whistle, but Leicester walked off 34-30 winners.
Munster reached the 2001-2002 final with quarter-final and semi-final victories on French soil against Stade Francais and Castres. Leicester pipped Llanelli in the last four, after the Scarlets had halted Leicester's 11-match Heineken Cup winning streak in the pool stages. A record crowd saw Leicester become the first side to successfully defend their title.
From 2002, the European Challenge Cup winner now automatically qualified for the Heineken Cup. Toulouse's victory over French rivals Perpignan in 2003 meant that they joined Leicester as the only teams to win the title twice. Toulouse saw a 19-point half-time lead whittled away as the Catalans staged a dramatic comeback in a match in which the strong wind and showers played a major role, but Toulouse survived to win.
In 2003-04 the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) voted to create regions to play in the Celtic League and represent Wales in European competition. Henceforth Wales entered regional sides rather than the club sides which had previously competed. English side London Wasps had earned their first final appearance by beating Munster 37-32 in a Dublin semi-final while Toulouse triumphed 19-11 in an all-French contest with Biarritz in a packed Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux. The 2004 final at Twickenham saw Wasps defeat defending champions Toulouse 27-20 at Twickenham to win the Heineken Cup for the first time. The match was widely hailed as one of the best finals. With extra time looming at 20-20, a late opportunist try by scrum half Rob Howley settled the contest.
The tenth Heineken Cup final saw the inaugural champions Toulouse battle with rising stars Stade Français when Murrayfield was the first Scottish venue to host the final. Fabien Galthié’s Paris side led until two minutes from the end of normal time before Frédéric Michalak levelled the contest for Toulouse with his first penalty strike. He repeated this in the initial stages of extra time and then sealed his side's success with a superb opportunist drop-goal. Toulouse became the first team to win three Heineken Cup titles.
In 2006, Munster defeated Biarritz in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, 23-19. It was third time lucky for the Irish provincial side, who had previously been denied the ultimate prize twice by Northampton and Leicester. South African Trevor Halstead and man of the match Peter Stringer scored Munster's two tries, having gone behind early in the first half to a try by Biarritz's Fijian winger, Sireli Bobo. French international Dimitri Yachvili kept the side from the Basque country in contention with a 100% goal kicking record, but it was Irish international Ronan O'Gara who kicked the most important penalty goal to stretch Munster's lead to 4 points with under 10 minutes of the game left. Despite pressure from Biarritz, Munster held on and a penalty awarded by referee Chris White against Yachvili for being offside at the scrum ended the 2005/06 French champions' hopes of a double. Stringer kicked the ball out into touch to spark mass celebrations inside the stadium and in Limerick.
The 2006-07 Heineken Cup would be distributed to over 100 countries following Pitch International's securing of the rights. That season was the first time in the history of the competition that two teams went unbeaten in pool play, with both Llanelli Scarlets and Biarritz doing so. Biarritz went into their final match at Northampton Saints with a chance to become the first team ever to score bonus-point wins in all their pool matches, but were only able to score two of the four tries needed. Leicester defeated Llanelli Scarlets to move into the final at Twickenham, with the possibility of winning a Treble of championships on the cards, having already won the EDF Energy Cup and the Guinness Premiership. However, Wasps won the final 25 points to 9 in front of a tournament record 81,076 fans.
During competition there was uncertainty over the future of the tournament after the 2006-07 season as French clubs had announced that they would not take part because of fixture congestion following the Rugby World Cup and an ongoing dispute between English clubs and the RFU. It was speculated that league two teams might compete the next season, the RFU saying "If this situation is not resolved, the RFU owes it to the sport to keep this competition going...We have spoken to our FDR clubs, and if they want to compete we will support them.". A subsequent meeting led to the announcement that the tournament would be played in 2007-08, with clubs from all the six nations. On May 20th it was announced that both French and English top-tier teams would be competing
|6||2||Leicester Tigers (2), London Wasps (2), Bath, Northampton Saints||Leicester Tigers (2)|
|4||8||Toulouse (3), Brive||Stade Français (2), Toulouse (2), Biarritz, Brive, Colomiers, Perpignan|
|3||2||Munster (2), Ulster||Munster (2)|
|Team||Winners||Runners-up||Years won||Years losing finalist|
|Toulouse||3||2||1995-96, 2002-03, 2004-05||2003-04, 2007-08|
|Munster||2||2||2005-06, 2007-08||1999-00, 2001-02|
|Leicester Tigers||2||2||2000-01, 2001-02||1996-97, 2006-07|
|London Wasps||2||0||2003-04, 2006-07|
|Stade Français||0||2||2000-01, 2004-05|
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