Champions Cup Classics: The French Connection

Champions Cup Classics: The French Connection

​Edinburgh Rugby mark their return to Heineken Champions Cup rugby this Saturday at BT Murrayfield against La Rochelle, one of two French TOP 14 sides in Pool A.

Taking on French teams carries with a certain special stardust, the occasions are rare and the opponent’s budgets gargantuan, but beyond that there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about encounters with the auld alliance.

We take a look at five of the best matches against French opposition in the club’s history.

1. Castres 6-13 Edinburgh (2008)

The win at Castres was the club’s first Heineken Cup triumph on French soil and was seen as a significant boost to knockout qualification hopes.

The club were good value for the win and could have had more than Mark Robertson's try to show for a dominant first-half performance, which saw Phil Godman – making his 100th appearance – miss an early penalty and the hosts register six points in response.

Edinburgh then hit back with Robertson's sensational 15th minute try after he collected a superb pass from scrum-half Mike Blair.

Don’t be fooled by the low score. This was a fast and free-flowing match, with the TMO called on twice first to revisit the efforts of hooker Romain Terrain, who looked odds-on to score following a cross-field kick, only for Robertson to dislodge the ball from his grasp at the last second.

Paterson was denied a try at the other end, when the video referee ruled he had marginally knocked on.

The Gala man made amends with his near-infallible boot, knocking over two penalties, to complete the day’s scoring without response and seal the famous win.

Edinburgh team: Paterson; Robertson, Cairns, De Luca (Houston 64), Webster; Godman, M. Blair; Jacobsen, Ford, G. Cross, C. Hamilton, J. Hamilton, Newlands, MacDonald, Hogg. Subs: Houston for De Luca (64), D. Blair for Godman (70), Kerr for Jacobsen (68), Kelly for Ford (73), Gissing for C. Hamilton (53).

2. Edinburgh 23-16 Toulouse (2003)

This was a win described by former Scotland cap and regular rugby writer Ian Morrison as one of the biggest upsets in the cup's history, a sentiment echoed by the Head Coach Frank Hadden who described it as ‘the biggest David and Goliath encounter I've ever been involved in’.

Toulouse took the lead with six points in the opening seven minutes, with one short penalty from Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and a long-range effort from Benoît Baby.

Brendan Laney and Chris Paterson added a tree-pointer a piece to level matters which, at the time, appeared to serve as the proverbial red rag to the bull – Frédéric Michalak stepped out of Marcus Di Rollo's tackle and sold Derrick Lee a dummy before putting Yannick Jauzion over for the try.

Edinburgh looked out of sorts and out of the contest at the break, trailing by seven, but two tries in a six-minute spell from locks Nathan Hines and Scott Murray stoked fires of the then Meadowbank side and put them in command.

The sides exchanged kicks in a sequence that saw Toulouse reduce the deficit to just two points but, four minutes into injury time, a Paterson break created space for Laney to skip past three tackles, score in the corner and seal the famous victory.

Edinburgh team: Lee; Webster, Di Rollo, Laney, Joiner; Paterson, Blair; Jacobsen, D Hall, Smith, Murray, Hines, Blackadder, Cross, Taylor. Tries: Hines, Murray, Laney. Subs: Southwell for Paterson (70), Kellock for Murray (70), Hogg for Cross (50).

3. Racing Metro home and away (2012)

Try as we might, it’s hard not to talk about Edinburgh in Europe without mention of the cup run in 2012 so this ‘one’ is actually wrap up of the Racing double.

The context to this year will always be key. Edinburgh were struggling for league form in a big way – rooted to the second-last spot of the league, with the winless (and now absent) Aironi sparing their blushes.

If you weren’t there or haven’t seen the club’s 11-try, 48-47 showdown – the first of two dramatic encounters with Racing – then do yourself favour and track it down, at most you’ll go 12 minutes without seeing a score of some kind.

Edinburgh were looking good at 17-3 thanks to tries from Tim Visser and Greig Laidlaw before the star-studded visitors rattled in four in response (Julien Saubade, Juan Imhoff, Jonathan Wisniewski and Henry Chavancy) to not only take the lead but open up a significant one of their own (20-44).

Then came the comeback. Netani Talei, Tom Brown and Roddy Grant all crossed the whitewash, and all of a sudden Edinburgh were remarkably back in it at just six points adrift.

With the Murrayfield crowd roaring themselves senseless, Visser bulldozed through a tackle to land his second try and Laidlaw held his nerve to knock over the decisive conversion to edge Edinburgh in front by one point.

A stunned Racing still had time to snatch victory in the final seconds but a close-range drop-goal attempt from Juan Martin Hernandez drifted wide to spark scenes of wild celebration from Edinburgh, who went top of their pool.

The prospect of Racing away was a daunting one and, with the experience of the home leg in recent memory, the feeling that all the stereotypes about French teams on home / away soil were going to come home to roost.

However, they also say fate is a cruel mistress, and so it would prove for Racing when – having missed the chance to drop the winning goal at Murrayfield – they would concede one in the dying minutes at home that would inflict the reverse in Paris.

The Scots were ahead for much of a game that was tied on three-tries apiece – Ross Rennie, Netani Talei and Dave Denton scoring for the visitors, Francois Steyn, Juan Imhoff and Antoine Battut in response from the French.

Denton’s effort was particularly masterful as he showed amazing speed to race 25 metres to score. The to-and-fro contest continued as Battut touched down in the corner and – following the conversation and another penalty – Racing had the lead for the first time.

Laidlaw levelled the scores once more with a nerveless penalty but the night belonged to Godman, whose sublime (and rare) drop-goal bisected the posts to the sound of the final whistle.

Edinburgh team (v Racing at home): Thompson; Jones, De Luca, Scott, Visser; Leonard, Laidlaw; Jacobsen, Ford, Cross, Lozada, Gilchrist, Talei, Grant, McInally. Subs: Brown for Thompson (48), King for Scott (21), Blair for Leonard (40), Lawrie for Ford (60), Turnbull for Gilchrist (60). Not Used: Traynor, Gilding, Rennie.

Edinburgh team (v Racing away)
: Paterson; Jones, De Luca, Scott, Visser; Laidlaw, Blair; Jacobsen, Ford, Cross, Gilchrist, Cox, Denton, Rennie, Talei. Subs: Brown for Paterson (70), Godman for Blair (67), Gilding for Cross (67), Grant for Rennie (49). Not Used: Walker, Traynor, Lozada, Thompson.

4. Edinburgh 19-14 Toulouse (2012)

You’ll be shocked to read one of the greatest moments and occasions in the club’s history is to feature in this lookback.

The club’s internal target of a 40,000 crowd was an ambitious one to say the least. International rugby sized crowds were creeping into the knockout round of the European club scene at the time but nothing had ever come close to that in Scotland and few thought it would this time either.

That the French fans were not expected to travel ‘en masse’ made that prospect even more unlikely, even if the stardust they brought by way of personnel and prestige made the fixture the perfect promotable opponent to wring every ounce of marketing and PR from the months of January to April.

Few believed this Edinburgh side – second bottom of the PRO12 – had much hope of overcoming the four-time European champions and their French World Cup stars, led by skipper and World Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir.

But there was an undeniable buzz in the air that day. The atmosphere was palpable long before kick-off and when the hosts took the lead through Mike Blair's early try before an unimaginable crowd it was well and truly on.

It certainly wasn’t plain sailing. Toulouse went in front courtesy of three Lionel Beauxis penalties and Timoci Matanavou's try.

Ross Rennie was sent to the sin bin – sustaining a nasty injury in process if memory serves – but Greig Laidlaw's drop-goal – with his side a man down – and two penalties, put Edinburgh 16-14 ahead.

Laidlaw was then presented with a penalty opportunity to seal the win.

By this point the little Jedburgh general had refined what we now associate with him so dearly – his metronomic match-winning boot – and sealed the win in front of a record crowd, who witnessed them become the first Scottish side to reach the Heineken Cup semi-finals.

Edinburgh team: T Brown; Jones, De Luca, Scott, T Visser; Laidlaw, Blair; Jacobsen, Ford, Cross, Gilchrist, Cox, Denton, Rennie, Talei. Subs: Leck for Blair (40), Grant for Rennie (71), McInally for Talei (71).

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