What do Leicester’s 2002 Heineken Cup winning team, Leinster’s 2012 legends and Toulon’s class of 2013 have in common that sets them apart from the Brive side of 1997? All of these teams did one thing which Brive did not; they lost a game on their way to the trophy.
Last year, Toulon were hockeyed 23-3 by Montpellier in the pool stage. In ’02, an already qualified Leicester took their eye off the ball in their final pool game, going down by 12 points against Llanelli. Joe Schmidt’s boys came closest in 2012, going unbeaten, but only because Jonny Sexton did his best ROG impression to sneak a draw with Montpellier in their first game. Brive however, had no such slip ups, breezing through a group which contained Ulster, Harlequins, the now defunct Scots Caledonia and Neath, A Welsh team now part of the amateur system in Wales and a feeder club to the Ospreys.
Aside from the Toulouse side of 1996, who had to play just four games, including two against Italian and Romanian opposition, on their way to the inaugural Heineken Cup title, Brive are the only team in the history of the competition to win every game on their way to the title.
The team itself was not star-studded and did not leap off the page, rather it was typical of the early years of the Heineken Cup; largely home grown, mixing a few stars of the amateur age who had embraced professionalism and a few more journeymen who would eventually be left behind by the new levels of dedication and commitment needed to be the best. Chief among these stars was outside centre Christophe Lamaison, the 36-cap man who remains France’s all time leading points scorer to this day.
Lamaison was joined in the backline by the lightning quick Sebastian Carat, a former sprinter who to this day is in the top 40 French 100m runners of all time, as well as the other Sebastian, Sebastien Viars, who scored 9 tries in 17 French caps. Charged with pulling the strings was captain and out half Alain Penaud, another French international who picked up 32 caps for Les Bleus. Up front they were led by the only Polish player ever to win the Heineken Cup, one-man demolition crew Grzegorz Kacala, while club legend and tight-head prop Richard Crespy could be relied upon to take the battle to the opposition, sometimes literally.
Neath offered little resistance in Brive’s opening encounter as Carat ran in four tries and Viars another in a 34-19 victory. Next up was a trip into the unknown to McDiarmid Park in Perth, to face Caledonia. Carat was in form again, adding two more tries to his tally, and the boot of Lamaison helped the French eke out a 32-30 victory. Round 3 saw Brive dispose of Harlequins 23-10, with yet another try from Carat, 12 points from Lamaison and a drop goal from Penaud. Brive trailed David Humphrey’s Ulster 6-5 at half time in their final group game at Ravenhill, but eventually pulled away to win 17-6 with Carat and Viars again doing the damage out wide.
Llanelli were the visitors to Stade Municipal in Brive for the quarter final, and were not expected to come close to an upset. A dominant kicking display from Lamaison, landing an incredible 9/9, including 7 penalties, ensured Brive had little trouble in emerging 35-7 victors.Led by the legendary Jonathan Davies at out half, Cardiff Blues could not be written off in the semi-final, but again Lamaison proved the hero, landing 16 first half points and converting tries from centre David Venditti and No.8 Francois Duboisset. Leading 26-13 at the break, Brive shut up shop, and no other points were scored as the sailed into their first final.
What transpired in that final is the main reason that Brive take their place on this list ahead of other early winners of the Heineken Cup such as Bath and Ulster. They faced a Leicester team that contained such legends of the game as Rory Underwood, Austin Healey and Dean Richards, and were nurturing a new generation who would go on to dominate the sport for the next five years. Included in their starting lineup were future World Cup winners Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Will Greenwood and Graham Rowntree. Faced with this mammoth task, Brive produced one of the most spectacular and complete performances in Heineken Cup history. Their stall was set out early with a penalty from Lamaison, before a Viars try showed that the French had really come to play. The try sums up all that was good about Brive, with Kacala embarking on one of his wrecking ball runs, before a 50 meter break from full back Viars ends with jubilation in the corner.
8-0 up within seven minutes, Brive continued to dominate, but Lamaison’s kicking began to falter. His record of 2/8 for the match kept Leicester in touch, and three penalties from Tigers fullback John Liley saw them edge 9-8 ahead in the 53rd minute. Brive however, began to turn their dominance into points moments later, with winger Gerald Fabre scoring in the corner to edge them in front. Finally Brive began to cut loose and Carrat, successfully kept quiet for the Quarter and Semi-finals, found his scoring touch again with two tries in the final quarter. There was even time for Lamaison to restore some respectability to his kicking with a late drop goal, for a final score of 28-9. The Heineken Cup was staying in France for another year, and Brive’s performance set a standard which all other contenders would strive to emulate.
Of the ten teams on this list, Brive were were the most difficult to place. On the one hand, some of their achievements were worthy of a higher ranking. Going through the competition with a 100% record was impressive enough, but their final performance truly took the breath away. They outscored Leicester four tries to nil, and were it not for the errant boot of Lamaison, the final score would have surpassed Leinster’s 2012 demolition of Ulster as the highest ever in a final. In the Sebastiens, Carrat and Viars, they possessed two local players who lit up the tournament with their incisive running. Carat finished with a competition of 10 tries which would stand long into the new millenium.
On the flip side, however, it is impossible to deny that all Heineken Cups before the turn of the century lack the mystique of the later editions. The competition, as well as the entire rugby world, was finding its feet with the advent of professionalism, and European Rugby still unquestionably played second fiddle to domestic leagues for French and English teams.
Regardless of how highly the competition was rated at the time however, the one thing no-one can take away from Brive is the scintillating rugby they played at times, and in particular the final 30 minutes of that classic final.
Brive 1997 Heineken Cup Final Team:
15. S Viars; 14. G Fabre, 13 . D Venditti, 12. C Lamaison, 11. S Carrat; 10. A Penaud (capt; R Paillat, 71), 9. P Carbonneau; 1. D Casadei (E Bouti, 72), 2. L Travers, 3. R Crespy, 4. E Allegret (A Rees, 67), 5. G Ross, 6. L van der Linden (Y Domi, 79), 7. F Duboisset (T Labrousse, 59), 8. G Kacala.
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.
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