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Mark Hoskins

Mark Hoskins writes

Posted Tuesday, December 8th 2020

A 12-year wait: Bristol's Heineken Champions Cup history

The long wait is over. After a gap of just over 12 years, Bristol will once again be playing in the Heineken Champions Cup this season.

Their most recent game in the competition, an instantly forgettable 17-0 home defeat to Cardiff Blues, was on January 20th 2008, and in total they have played twelve ties spread over two Heineken Cup campaigns. Now is an appropriate time to reflect on the highs and lows of Bristol’s ventures into Europe’s top rugby competition.

Bristol first qualified for the Heineken Cup after unexpectedly reaching the final of the 2001-02 Zurich Championship, which was a discreet competition contested at the end of the Premiership season. In fact, Bristol qualified after their semi-final victory over Northampton, a game in which Felipe Contepomi scored all his side’s 32 points and famously ran up into the stand to join in the applause for one of his tries.

Bristol’s group opponents in the 2002-03 Heineken Cup were Leinster, Montferrand and Swansea, and they kicked off their campaign with a tricky tie against Leinster at Donnybrook on October 11th 2002. This game was lost, but Bristol won the first Heineken Cup game played at the Memorial Stadium, defeating Montferrand 24-19.

The games with Swansea were played on consecutive weekends in December, with Bristol losing away and winning at home. This brings us to what was unquestionably the highlight of the 2002-03 campaign in Europe – a victory which still deserves to be ranked amongst the team’s finest achievements.

Bristol travelled to Montferrand in January under something of a cloud, having badly underperformed in a Premiership game at Harlequins. They arrived at the ground to find the pitch covered in snow, but conscious of the fact that they would have to remain in France until the tie was played they agreed to start the match, even though the temperature at kick-off was minus four. Montferrand had lost at home to Leinster, but prior to that they had been unbeaten at home in 21 European games, so they were the favourites by a clear margin. But Bristol won a thrilling match 30-22, with a try from replacement Jamie Williams sealing victory in injury time. Several players left the field with ice burns at the end of the game. 

Victory in France meant that Bristol still had a mathematical chance of qualifying for the quarter final, but they lost at home to Leinster, and as many supporters will recall they were relegated at the end of the season. Their second and most recent Heineken Cup campaign was in the 2007-08 season, following a brilliant third place finish in the Premiership. This time their group opponents were Cardiff Blues, Stade Francais and Harlequins, and they kicked off with defeat in Cardiff.

Next up was a home tie with Stade Francais, then very much the glamour boys of the French club game, and here we come to another of the great days in Bristol’s history. The visitors had international talent aplenty in their side, but on a wet and windy afternoon they never settled against a passionate and committed Bristol side. A Neil Brew try and four David Hill penalties saw Bristol to a famous 17-0 victory in what was arguably the team’s finest ever performance during Richard Hill’s tenure as head coach. The win was memorably summed up by the Evening Post’s Steve Cotton.  “There are victories,” he wrote, “there are victories in the Heineken Cup – and there are once-in-a-lifetime occasions like beating and shutting out the French champions in front of your own supporters.”

Bristol built on this great win by defeating Harlequins home and away, with David Lemi scoring tries in both games. But they failed to get a bonus point in Paris, despite a brave effort in losing 19-11 to Stade Francais. This left them needing at the very least a bonus point win over Cardiff Blues to progress from their group, but as mentioned at the start of this article, they couldn’t score a single point against their Welsh rivals.

So ended Bristol’s second Heineken Cup venture. Both campaigns have featured some success, with one classic match in each. Bears supporters will be hoping that the 2020-21 competition will provide plenty of thrills, and that the team can make a bit of club history by progressing to the knockout stages for the first time.  


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