What happened when Irish provinces last struggled in European competition?

This weekend sees no Irish teams take part in the Champions Cup quarter-finals

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Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tom Honan

At their peak, the Heineken Cup knockout stages were arguably bigger than the Six Nations for Irish rugby.

From Munster's triumph against Biarritz in 2006, to the all-Irish final between Leinster and Ulster in 2012, Irish teams dominated European competition. Between them, Munster and Leinster won five Heineken Cup titles in seven years.

This weekend, the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup is taking place, not that many Irish fans would care. Two all-English ties take place on Saturday as Saracens play Northampton and Exeter travel north to face Wasps.

On Sunday, the only non-domestic tie of the round sees Stade Francais travel to Leicester. The weekend concludes with Racing 92 playing champions Toulon in Paris.

The only Irish involvement in Europe this weekend is in the Challenge Cup as Connacht meet Grenoble in France. Pat Lam's side only reached the quarter-final after Brive lost away to Newcastle to let the Westerners top the group.

Connacht's Matt Healy makes a break on his way to scoring a try against Enisei-STM in the Challenge Cup. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Despite the successes of Irish provinces domestically, it has been a very disappointing year in Europe. This weekend sees no Irish team compete in the quarter-finals of Europe's main club competition for the first time since 1998. In that season, there were also three quarter-final play-offs which Munster, Leinster or Ulster failed to reach, meaning there were no Irish teams in the top-eleven.

The following year, Ulster became the first Irish side to win the Heineken Cup. Simon Mason kicked six penalties in Lansdowne Road as Ulster defeated Colomiers 21-6. Due to a disagreement between the RFU and tournament organisers, no English teams competed in the tournament that season.

English teams returned to the tournament in the following year, but (despite the best interests of Munster), it would take seven seasons for an Irish team to be crowned European champions. After the Irish performances in this year's tournament, are the teams in a similar fallow period now? Will we see an Irish champion in the next five years?

Here is the story of how those Irish teams did in the early 2000s. For Munster, it would be a long and heartbreaking road to triumph.


Munster were the only team to reach the knockout stages as Leinster and Ulster failed to advance from the Pools. A home quarter-final win over Stade Francais was followed by a triumph over Toulouse in the south of France.

Those wins booked Munster's place in their first European final where they would lose to Northampton in Twickenham by a point. The game finished 9-8 and is best remembered for Ronan O'Gara's late miss to win the game.


As was the case in the previous year, Munster were the only Irish side to survive the Pool stages. A home win over Biarritz set up another semi-final on French soil.

On this occasion, Stade Francais avenged the previous year's quarter-final defeat with a 16-15 win.


Leinster joined their southern cousins in the quarter-finals, but were eliminated by Leicester at Welford Road. For the first time in three seasons, Munster had to leave Limerick for their quarter-final, beating Stade Francais in Paris. It was the third year in a row the teams met in the knockout stages.

In the semi-final, Munster were again in France, beating Castres. The final was a 15-9 loss to Leicester, which became famous for the Hand of Back.


For the second year in a row, both Leinster and Munster reached the quarter-finals. On this occasion, both won, defeating Biarritz and Leicester respectively.

A final in Lansdowne Road awaited the semi-final winners but both teams lost to French opposition. Trevor Brennan's Toulouse defeated Perpignan to go on and win the title in a half-empty stadium.


Munster continued their path to the semi-finals as they had done in previous five seasons, but lost to London Wasps 37-32 in Dublin.

The game remains one of the most dramatic in European history, which culminated in Trevor Leota's match-winning try.


In a year to forget for the Irish provinces, Munster lost their record of successive semi-final appearances as they joined Leinster in being eliminated in the quarter-finals.

Leinster were well beaten at home by Leicester in Lansdowne Road and the following day, Munster lost to Biarritz in San Sebastian.


This was the season the dream finally became reality for Irish provinces. Munster and Leinster met in an all-Ireland semi-final, which proved to be a one-sided contest; Munster were 30-6 winners.

After losing the final just four years previously in Cardiff, Munster finally climbed the mountain and defeated Biarritz in Cardiff.

From Ulster's win in 1999, it took an Irish team seven seasons to become champions again. The last time an Irish side won the title was back in 2012, when Leinster defeated Ulster to win back-to-back European Cups. By contrast, this will be the fourth season in a row in which no Irish team will reach the final, and perhaps even that a similar drought is on the horizon in the coming years.