Tigers are Heineken champs once again
May 25, 2002

Leicester Tigers have become the first side ever to defend the Heineken Cup after a hard-fought 15-9 victory over Munster at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.

The Tigers succeeded where all five of their champion predecessors - Toulouse, Brive, Bath, Ulster and Northampton - had failed, in retaining northern hemisphere rugby's premier club prize.

Tries in each half from Geordan Murphy and Austin Healey saw the Tigers home, but Munster goalkicker Ronan O'Gara was left inconsolable after missing two late penalties that would have hauled the 2000 beaten finalists level.

However, there was controversy in the dying seconds when Leicester full-back Neil Back secured scrum ball from a Munster put-in with television replays confirming that he had done it illegally by using his hands.

O'Gara booted all Munster's points through a penalty hat-trick, yet Leicester possessed that decisive creative spark, which Murphy and Healey confirmed through their try-scoring exploits.

It was not the classic of last year's final, when Leicester defeated Stade Francais 34-30 in arguably the greatest club game ever seen.

Leicester, though, had just enough left in the tank after a stamina-sapping season, and the Tigers' front-row trio of Graham Rowntree, Darren Garforth and Richard Cockerill gleefully held aloft the gleaming silver trophy to an ecstatic response from Tigers' adoring fans.

Cardiff welcomed a record Heineken Cup final crowd - 74,000 had packed in under the spectacular Millennium Stadium's closed roof - in scenes reminiscent of World Cup 99.

Leicester and Munster supporters were out in force, providing a superb backdrop for the seventh European final and creating a Test match atmosphere.

Well before kick-off, the noise was deafening and underlined again what an impact the competition has made on northern hemisphere rugby.

English champions Leicester showed one change from their nail-biting semi-final victory over Llanelli last month, replacing try scoring scrum-half Harry Ellis with the more experienced Jamie Hamilton.

Munster, beaten finalists two years ago, went into battle without Irish international wing Anthony Horgan, who suffered a broken hand in training, so John O'Neill wore the number 11 jersey on a day when 35-year-old forward warrior Peter Clohessy made his final appearance before retiring.

Leicester almost made a sensational start, thinking they had scored a try inside 40 seconds.

Tim Stimpson's steepling kick caused panic in the Munster defence, but French referee Joel Jutge ruled that wing John Kelly had been illegally nudged as Tigers wing Fereti Tuilagi powered over the line.

Stimpson then missed a third-minute penalty chance, and O'Gara quickly showed him how it should be done when he found the target from 25 metres on seven minutes, sparking the first strains of Munster's 'Fields of Athenry' anthem from the packed stands.

Leicester had another 'try' disallowed in the 10th minute, Johnson crashing over from a close-range line-out, but Jutge decided the set-piece had been incorrectly assembled.

Johnson's animated response graphically illustrated his sense of frustration, and Tigers were left ruing what might have been.

Leicester fly-half Healey and Munster hooker Frankie Sheahan were both hurt in a 17th-minute collision, James Blaney temporarily replacing the bloodied Sheahan while Healey required lengthy on-field treatment before continuing.

O'Gara slotted his second penalty on 20 minutes - Tigers' England flanker Lewis Moody ruled offside at a ruck - and Leicester uncharacteristically then conceded turnover possession, allowing O'Gara to clear a threatening situation.

But Leicester's response was swift, Tuilagi's pass sending Stimpson galloping clear, and after the full-back dummied his way past Dominic Crotty and cut inside Stringer, Murphy rounded off a brilliant move by touching down.

Stimpson missed the simple conversion attempt though, allowing Munster to preserve their advantage, albeit down to one point at 6-5.

Both sides probed for another score before the break, O'Gara's astute tactical kicking proving a feature, but Leicester came closest after a Murphy break sent Stimpson clear, only for Crotty to snuff out the danger.

Leicester made a nervy start to the second period, number eight Martin Corry spilling a high kick and allowing Munster immediate field position ascendancy - yet they could not make it count.

Tigers found themselves matched blow for blow up front, with Munster's forwards savouring every moment of the physical combat, and after Leicester prop Garforth was punished for incorrect scrum binding, O'Gara landed a glorious 50-metre penalty.

Leicester were at sixes and sevens, and coach Dean Richards clearly hoped that Harry Ellis' 52nd-minute introduction for an injured Jamie Hamilton would spark much-needed composure.

Munster also made their first permanent switch, replacing number eight Anthony Foley with Australian international Jim Williams, yet Leicester went ahead for the first time just six minutes later.

Punishing pressure on the Munster defence deep inside their 22 eventually took its toll, and it was Healey who struck.

Given the ball in space 10 metres out, Healey cantered through O'Gara's attempted tackle and touched down near the posts, complete with soccer-style scoring salute.

Stimpson's conversion - his first successful kick - gave Leicester a 12-9 lead, but Munster came storming back after Clohessy had received a standing ovation when he was replaced by Marcus Horan.

Garforth was again penalised for not binding properly, yet O'Gara failed to find the target from 25 metres as mounting pressure clearly began to have an effect.

Stimpson then struck a penalty close to the halfway line and, with a six-point advantage, Leicester started to look in control.

But any hint of complacency was quickly removed when Munster wing John O'Neill looked to have squeezed over in the corner, but Healey's blistering pace enabled him to pull off a stunning try-saving cover tackle, with O'Neill hitting the corner flag before touching down.

O'Gara missed another penalty six minutes from time and, as the kick drifted wide, so Munster's Heineken Cup hopes drifted irretrievably off course.

Leicester had done enough, writing a new chapter in this magnificent tournament's illustrious history and leaving Munster - especially O'Gara - wondering what might have been.

Teams:

Leicester: Stimpson, Murphy, Smith, Kafer, Tuilagi, Healey, Hamilton, Rowntree, West, Garforth, M. Johnson, Kay, Moody, Back, Corry.

Replacements: Gelderbloom for Smith (78), Ellis for Hamilton (52), Freshwater for Rowntree (74).

Not Used: Cockerill, W. Johnson, Kronfeld, Goode.

Tries: Murphy, Healey.

Cons: Healey.

Pens: Stimpson.

Leicester:

Munster: Crotty, Kelly, Henderson, Holland, B. O'Neill, O'Gara, Stringer, P. Clohessy, Sheahan, Hayes, Galwey, O'Connell, Quinlan, Wallace, Foley, Blaney.

Replacements: Staunton for Crotty (66), Mullins for Henderson (68), Horan for P. Clohessy (61), Blaney for Sheahan (18), J. O'Driscoll for O'Connell (62), Williams for Foley (53), Sheahan for Blaney (29).

Not Used: Prendergast.

Pens: O'Gara 3.

Att: 74,000

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