LOOKING BACK: The day Northampton Saints were crowned the 'Kings Of Europe'

A dip into the archives and memory banks to recall the afternoon in May, 2000, that the Saints became the best team in Europe...

By Jeremy Casey
Saturday, 18th April 2020, 9:05 am
Saints celebrate winning the European Cup
Saints celebrate winning the European Cup

Sports editor JEREMY CASEY has been watching Northampton sport for 45 years now, the first 13 as a fan and for the past 32 years as a journalist. With live sport shut down for the foreseeable future, Jeremy delves into his memory banks and the Chron’s archive to relive and revisit some of the great town sporting moments he has been lucky enough to witness... number three - we go back 20 years to Saints winning the European Cup in 2000.

First up are Jeremy's recollections of the day, followed by the reaction of the key players of the day, as recorded in the Chronicle & Echo at the time.

THE EVENT - Saturday, May 27, 2000, Twickenham, London. The Heineken Cup Final - Saints 9 Munster 8

Tim Rodber (left) and Pat Lam lift the trophy

My first experience of attending Twickenham Stadium turned out to be a very memorable one... indeed, it turned out to be an historic one.

A blustery late spring Saturday in May, 2000, was not only my first trip to the home of rugby, but also turned out to be the day that a Northampton team became the champions of Europe for the first time.

I went along as part of the Chron’s reporting team, supporting the much-missed Terry Morris and his fellow rugby writer Caroline Hayden, and it was a special occasion.

Now before we start, let’s make one thing clear, I am no expert when it comes to rugby (plenty would say I am no expert on anything...), but I do enjoy the sport.

Matt Allen lifts the trophy aloft

I occasionally went to watch the Saints in the club’s amateur days, with my dad taking me along a couple of times to stand on the Gordon Terrace, where I would always marvel at the pace and trickery of whichever winger was operating just yards in front of me.

I even played the game, turning out for the Thomas Becket school team many, many times.

But I have to admit that was mainly because our PE teacher, Bill Brophy, insisted all the football team turned out for the rugby XV as well as the teams played on alternate weekends... and if the player didn’t agree, then they didn’t play football either! My arm was twisted!

So, I wouldn’t say I was a willing participant, but in all honesty as a team we weren’t that bad, and I did enjoy playing to a certain degree - although I never did relish having to stick my head in the vicinity of the sharp knees of some centre or full-back sprinting at me at full pace.

The Chron back page on the Monday following the game

I’ll admit it now, I always took the dummy...

Anyway, enough of my sporting cowardice, and back to that day in south west London, and the lead up to it.

Following the advent of professional rugby in the mid-90s, under the inspirational stewardship of Keith Barwell, Saints had been building genuine momentum ahead of the 1999-2000 season.

The club invested in some real overseas talent, as well as nurturing some high quality homegrown performers.

Terry Morris's match report

The squad that season included future England mainstays Matt Dawson, Paul Grayson, Tim Rodber and Ben Cohen and others such as Nick Beal and Jon Sleightholme, as well as future Scotland internationals Budge Pountney, Matt Stewart and Craig Moir, and Wales and British & Irish Lions centre Matt Bateman.

Then there were the imports in the shape of the inspirational Pat Lam, South African Garry Pagel and Argentina internationals Federico Mendez and Martin Scelzo.

It was a formidable squad, with a great blend of youth, experience, flair and power.

But they went into the Heineken Cup Final a bruised and battered group after a long and gruelling campaign.

Director of rugby John Steele oversaw a superb season that saw Saints seriously challenge for the league title, and also reach the final of the domestic cup competition, but they were in danger of running out of steam when it really mattered.

Injuries at crucial times to key players saw their title bid falter in the closing weeks, and on May 13 they were beaten in the Tetley’s Bitter Cup Final, going down 31-23 to Wasps.

The Saints players enjoy a lap of honour

That game came just six days after Saints had won a bruising Heineken Cup semi-final 31-28 against Llanelli at the Madejski Stadium, and just a fortnight after going down to Wasps, they were back off to Twickenham hoping it would be third time lucky in the trophy stakes.

They would have to do it without the injured Dawson, Beal, Sleightholme and others, and with a seriously weary squad following that congested run - they had also won a league match at Newcastle on May 21, just six days before the final.

By contrast, Munster arrived at Twickenham fresh from a three-week break without a game, although perversely, that was to prove a hindrance to the Irish side rather than a help.

As was the performance of highly-rated young fly-half Ronan O’Gara - but we can come to that later!

There were a few shy of 70,000 inside a Twickenham that was three-quarters the stadium you see today, with the south stand yet to be built up to match the east, west and north.

There was a crackling atmosphere, and despite the disparity in travel distance - with Northampton an hour down the road and Munster many more by land and sea - it was the Irish side who had the majority of the backing.

Many sections of the stadium were a sea of red shirts, but there were still an estimated 20,000 Saints fans in attendance, and they certainly made themselves heard.

Their support seemed to inspire the Saints players, who were the better team in the opening stages, although all they had to show for their efforts was a single Grayson penalty after just two minutes.

With their first foray into Saints territory, Munster levelled things with a Jason Holland drop goal on 15 minutes, but Saints still continued dominate.

They wasted try-scoring chances though, and on 31 minutes were made to pay when David Wallace barged over after a break down the wing by rampaging Munster hooker Keith Wood.

As was to become a theme for the day, O’Gara missed the conversion, and with Grayson making no mistake with a penalty kick just before the break, it meant Saints went in at half-time trailing 8-6.

The odds were still seemingly in Munster’s favour, as they had a stiff breeze at their backs in the second half as well as those fresher legs, but O’Gara’s afternoon was about to go from poor, to bad, to terrible.

The fly-half was penalised after 47 minutes for failing to release the ball and Grayson, playing at full-back, stepped up to slot the penalty and give the Saints a 9-8 lead.

But with more than half an hour to play, surely there would be more scores on the doors?

There were certainly chances for both sides, but the hapless O’Gara, and also Grayson in the latter stages, were off target.

The match certainly wasn’t a free-flowing classic, but it was gripping, and as the clock ticked down the tension became almost unbearable.

Munster were pushing hard for that moment of magic to win them the game, but they suffered a serious setback on 67 minutes when Mick Galwey was sin-binned for a trip on Dom Malone, who enjoyed a superb game at scrum-half in place of Dawson.

That led to a chance for Grayson to extend the Saints lead with a penalty, but he missed.

The attempt was preceeded by jeering from Munster supporters behind the posts in the south stand - but the rest of the stadium soon let them know what they thought of that...

The Irish side were getting desperate to turn things round, and following Galwey’s re-introduction they put everything they had into one last push.

For the Saints fans inside the stadium and those watching on the television, the horrible feeling was that Munster had to get one more chance to win it, the pressure was getting too much.

And they did.

It was a controversial moment though, with referee Joel Dume awarding the Irishmen a penalty on 78 minutes after missing a blatant knock-on by Mike Mullins in the build-up.

That meant the result of the match effectively rested on the swing of the right boot of O’Gara.

The clock had ticked passed 79 minutes by the time the 23-year-old moved in to go for glory from 30 metres out, just to the left of the posts as he looked at them.

Pretty much the perfect spot.

O’Gara’s kick was on the opposite side of the pitch to where I was, but from my seat in the back of the east stand, I could see the TV monitors in the press room behind me.

Everybody in the ground held their breath as O’Gara struck the ball sweetly and it looked good.

I immediately turned to watch the flight of the ball on the TV, and it looked for all the world like the ball was going straight between the posts... but no.

It started to drift left, and carried on drifting to go past the wrong side of the posts.

Saints were almost there!

As the clock went into the red they just needed to see things out - and to make a miserable afternoon complete for O’Gara, it was he who knocked on in the middle of the pitch to end the game.

The referee’s whistle blew, and Saints were the champions of Europe, claiming the club’s first major title in its 120-year history.

There were wild celebrations among the Saints contingent on the pitch and in the stands, while O’Gara was left in tears as he tried to come to terms with his personal horror show.

He would of course go on to enjoy a stellar career, but the 2000 Heineken Cup Final is not one he will remember with any fondness.

The same cannot be said of any Saints player or supporter who was at Twickenham that day.

The fans stayed around the stadium celebrating for hours, and then the party continued once everybody had got back to Franklin’s Gardens and for the following weeks and days as well.

And why not?

It’s not every day you become champions of Europe!

MATCH STATS

Saints 9 Munster 8

Saints scores: Pens: Grayson 3

Munster scores: Try: Wallace; DG - Holland

Teams: Saints: Grayson, Moir, Bateman, Allen, Cohen, A. Hepher, Malone (74m, Bramhall), Pagel, Mendez, Stewart (68m, Scelzo), Newman (71m, Phillips), Rodber, MacKinnon, Pountney, Lam. Replacements not used: Tucker, Northey, Walter, Metcalfe, .

Munster: Crotty (73m, Keane), Kelly, Mullins, Holland, Horgan, O’Gara, Stringer, Clohessy, Wood, Hayes, Galwey, Langford, E. Halvey, Wallace, Foley. Replacements not used: O’Neill, Tierney, Quinlan, O’Callaghan, Sheahan, Horan.

Yellow cards: 67 mins: Galwey (Munster)

Referee: Joel Dume (France)

Attendance: 68,441

THE REACTION

Saints director of rugby John Steele

“You need a bit of luck, you need things to go your way to get to a final and you don’t know how often that is going to come up.

“I felt we deserved our victory. Munster have been outstanding in the tournament and they fought so hard. They would not let us pull away.

“People perceived we would play like tired, injured players, and we identified that the first 20 minutes was important that we showed that wasn’t the case.

“Maybe that took Munster back slightly, that we weren’t the war-weary people we were being made out to be.

“Today reflects this group of players’ efforts this season, but it also reflects the past 10 years at Northampton, the likes of Ian McGeechan who has had an enormous influence on today.

“And, of course, Keith Barwell, who has been patient and kept his enthusiasm. He has been waiting for this day.”

Tim Rodber

“I don’t think I will ever top this. To play for England and the British Lions is fantastic, but to do something with people you train with every day represents the highlight of my career.

“When I joined Northampton we were bottom of the second division in England - 11 years later we are European champions. This means so much to the players and fans.

“We had experienced defeat in a Twickenham final against Wasps two weeks ago, and we didn’t want to go through that again.

“We have competed on three fronts all year and we’ve fallen over in the past few weeks. We wanted to win all three trophies, but we have ended up collecting the biggest one.”

Saints skipper Pat Lam

“Everything that we have been through is all worth it now.

"The win has taken a weight off our shoulders, we will not be the underachievers any more.

“Nobody will ever talk about the hard rugby and the injuries - all they will talk about now is what we have achieved. It’s the best pain-killer you can get.”

Ben Cohen

“That was fantastic, just what the doctor ordered.

“It was one of the biggest games I have played in, and I love Twickenham. The place has been good to me.

“We were unlucky in the Tetley’s Bitter Cup Final, and I think being in the running for all three trophies was probably a bit much for us.

“The club wanted to win a big cup though, and they don’t come much bigger than the European Cup!”

Allan Bateman

“To be involved in a club competition and win the tournament means so much to everybody.

“It’s the crowning moment of my career. This means even more to me that the Lions tour of 1997, to win this is way beyond anything I have achieved.”

Matt Dawson

“They did it for me, they did it for a lot of people and it was brilliant.

“I didn’t get on the pitch, but I still feel part of the squad. It has been a brilliant day and is what the club deserves, it’s what the fans deserve.”

Chronicle & Echo rugby writer Terry Morris

“Champions of Europe! How richly Saints deserve that title at the end of a season of joy and heartache, laughter and tears, anguish and celebration.

“To drag their battered and bruised bodies through a cruelly-designed and congested season, to blossom, wither and die in the Premiership title race in a few short weeks, lose the Tetley’s Bitter Cup Final and then, on the very last day of the season, lift rugby’s greatest prize in front of almost 70,000 fans at an electrified Twickenham will put Saints down as one of British sporting history’s greatest sides.

“Saints defied the odds and the gods.”

The match ticket...