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Champions Cup: The greatest finals in the history of Europe's highest level ahead of Leinster vs Toulouse meeting

From 1996 to 2023, we pick out seven of the greatest European finals in Champions Cup history. From La Rochelle's remarkable comeback win vs Leinster in Dublin last year, to wins by Leicester Tigers, Exeter Chiefs, Munster, Wasps and Leinster in the pinnacle of club rugby

20 May 2023; Gregory Alldritt, left, and Romain Sazy of La Rochelle lift the trophy after the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and La Rochelle at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Image: La Rochelle are the Champions Cup holders, after an epic comeback victory over Leinster in Dublin last year

Ahead of Saturday's blockbuster Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse in Tottenham, we look back at the greatest European Cup finals in history...

Leinster 26-27 La Rochelle - 2023

Last year's final between four-time winners Leinster and then reigning champions La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin - a repeat of the 2022 final in Marseille, when Ronan O'Gara's La Rochelle came from eight points down to win in the last minute - was arguably the greatest Champions Cup final witnessed so far.

On the day, a magnificent comeback from 17 points down saw La Rochelle become back-to-back Champions Cup winners with a dramatic 27-26 win over Leinster on their own patch.

20 May 2023; La Rochelle
Image: La Rochelle came from 17-0 and 23-7 behind to beat Leinster on their own patch

Leinster were 17-0 ahead inside 12 minutes, as hooker Dan Sheehan (two) and wing Jimmy O'Brien scored tries in a stunning start to the game which also saw La Rochelle scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow sin-binned.

The French club hit back through a Jonathan Danty try, but fell 23-7 behind after a couple of Ross Byrne penalties, before Danty's midfield partner UJ Seuteni crucially scored a second try late in the opening half to bring the visitors within nine points.

O'Gara's charges then proceeded to dominate virtually the entirety of the second half, displaying superiority at scrum and maul time, but Leinster's superb defence just kept them out for prolonged spells after Antoine Hastoy had cut the gap to six points.

That was until replacement tighthead Georges Henri Colombe forced his way over with eight minutes to play, with Hastoy converting for a one-point lead - completing the largest comeback in European Cup final history in doing so.

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20 May 2023; La Rochelle
Image: Ronan O'Gara's charges sealed the 2023 title, to sit alongside their final triumph in 2022 - also vs Leinster

Leinster did have a final chance to win it once Danty was sin-binned for a high tackle, attacking hard at the La Rochelle try-line in the closing minutes, but just when it seemed the Irish province would perform a role reversal of La Rochelle's late success in Marseille, prop Michael Ala'alatoa was red carded for a dangerous, out-of-control clearout on Colombe, allowing La Rochelle to clear the danger and deservedly celebrate wildly.

Leinster 33-22 Northampton - 2011

Before last year's epic in Dublin, the largest final comeback in Champions Cup history came in 2011 when Leinster clinched their second title after after a gripping 33-22 win over Northampton in Cardiff.

leinster 2011
Image: Leinster picked up their second European title in 2011, coming from 22-6 behind to beat Northampton

The Saints appeared on course for a second European Cup victory after taking a 22-6 half-time lead, but a stunning fightback from the Irish side, led by Johnny Sexton, enabled them to win the tournament for the second time in three years.

Tries from Phil Dowson, Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley put Northampton on course for victory before Leinster rallied and completely dominated the second half.

Sexton scored after the restart, and the Ireland out-half quickly crossed the line again before a Leinster penalty enabled them to turn their hefty deficit into a one-point lead within the space of 17 second-half minutes.

during the Heineken Cup Final match between Leinster and Northampton Saints at the Millennium Stadium on May 21, 2011 in Cardiff, Wales.
Image: Johnny Sexton put in perhaps the greatest individual performance in European Cup final history in 2011

Nathan Hines scored Leinster's third try, in his final game before joining Clermont Auvergne, as the Blues completed a remarkable turnaround.

Leicester 34-30 Stade Francais - 2001

Up there with the most entertaining of European Cup finals in history, Leicester clinched their first triumph in the competition in 2001 after a stirring win over Stade Francais in Paris.

leicester tigers 2001
Image: Leicester left it late to defeat Stade Francais in a high-scoring 2001 final in Paris

It looked as if the French side would be crowned champions, leading for most of the match, but a try from Leon Lloyd in the last minute snatched the win for the Tigers.

Diego Dominguez scored all of Stade Francais' points, which included nine penalties, as the side stood on the verge of European glory.

Trailing 15-9 at the break, Lloyd scored at the start of the second half before Neil Back's converted try made it 21-21.

Dominguez edged Stade Francais back in front, but the contest was decided right at the end when Austin Healey broke clear down the middle and set up Lloyd for the winning try.

Exeter Chiefs 31-27 Racing 92 - 2020

The rescheduled 2020 final ensured a new name would be on the trophy, as Exeter and Racing faced off behind closed doors in Bristol due to Covid-19.

Image: The competition's winners in 2020 were Exeter Chiefs, after their stunning defeat of Racing 92 behind closed doors

Supporters were robbed of one of the most entertaining finals in history, as a ding-dong affair saw Exeter slide into a 14-0 lead inside 20 minutes after tries from Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds.

Racing then hit back with tries from Simon Zebo and Juan Imhoff, but the Chiefs had the final say of the first half as Harry Williams scored in the last play.

Zebo notched his second for Racing soon after the restart, but Henry Slade scored two minutes after that to give Exeter daylight again. Just five minutes later, Camille Chat was over for Racing, and with 15 minutes left Maxime Machenaud kicked a penalty to reduce the Exeter lead to just 28-27.

Desperate try-line defence from the Chiefs kept Racing out further, while a pivotal Sam Hidalgo-Clyne breakdown turnover proved critical. Joe Simmonds then made sure of victory with the final kick from a penalty, and despite referee Nigel Owens' confusion over the match clock, there would be no Racing restart.

Munster 23-19 Biarritz - 2006

After several years of one-score semi-final heartache and two agonising near misses in finals, it was third time lucky for Munster in the Heineken Cup in 2006 after edging past Biarritz in Cardiff.

Foley, Munster, 2006
Image: Munster's 10-year journey to clinch a European Cup title was emotionally achieved in 2006

Sireli Bobo gave Biarritz a controversial early lead, but Munster responded through Trevor Halstead's score and a superb individual try from Peter Stringer.

Munster led 17-10 at half-time, but the French side closed to within a point after a couple of penalties from Dmitri Yachvili to set up a tense finale.

Stringer, Munster, 2006
Image: Peter Stringer's try in the 2006 final has gone down in folklore

Reliable out-half Ronan O'Gara fired over his third penalty of the match, however, and Munster held out to seal an emotional first European triumph.

Wasps 27-20 Toulouse - 2004

Rob Howley's late try gave Wasps a sensational victory over Toulouse in 2004 at Twickenham for their first trophy success in the tournament.

wasps, 2004
Image: Wasps beat Toulouse at Twickenham in 2004, after Rob Howley's famous late try and Clement Poitrenaud's infamous error

Wasps had the upper hand in the first half, with Stuart Abbott crossing the line to give them the lead, before Toulouse fly-half Yann Delaigue replied to bring his side back to within two points of their opponents.

Full-back Mark van Gisbergen followed up with Wasps' second try, but the English club were pegged back by two penalties from Jean-Baptiste Elissalde.

The final then appeared to be heading towards extra-time until Howley raced on to his own grubber kick to score the decisive try in the corner for Wasps, after Clement Poitrenaud had made the error of all European Cup final errors, willing and waiting for the bouncing ball to land in-goal but failing to press down ahead of Howley.

Bath 19-18 Brive - 1998

In the third edition of Heineken Cup finals, Bath broke the French hold in highly dramatic fashion against the reigning champions in Brive.

andy nicol
Image: Andy Nicol lifts the trophy aloft as Bath pulled off an unlikely and dramatic final victory over Brive

Early into the second half, Bath sat nine points adrift and appeared on the ropes, with Brive poised to provide the killer punch as they camped on the Bath line with a succession of scrums.

An incredible seven times the 1997 cup winners tried to break Bath, and seven times Bath refused to buckle. The psychological battle was won and lost in those power-packed minutes.

Bath slowly edged back into things on the scoreboard, before a fourth penalty from full-back Jon Callard two minutes into injury time sealed victory in the one and only occasion Bath took the lead in the final.

Brive centre Christophe Lamaison still had one final penalty chance to keep the cup in France but was wide to the right, before fly-half Lisandro Arbizu then watched in despair as his attempted drop-goal also failed to find the target.

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