It may be the 25th staging of Europe’s premier club competition – the Heineken Champions Cup – but only the 24th to involve Scottish teams after the four districts had their baptism of fire the season after Toulouse lifted the inaugural trophy in 1996.
That first tournament came in the world game’s first year of professionalism, which caught Scotland completely unprepared.
With the SRU deeming that the country’s top club sides were not of a high enough standard to take part, they, along with an initially reluctant England, watched on as Emile Ntamack skippered Toulouse to the first-ever title with victory over Cardiff at the Arms Park after extra-time.
After humble beginnings to a tournament launched by the Five Nations committee, with the first ever competition match seeing Toulouse thrash Constanta in front of a few hundred people in Romania, it built through that first season enough to have the English and Scots on board the following one, and on to become one of the world’s major sporting events. As Glasgow Warriors prepare to host Sale at Scotstoun on Saturday afternoon in the latest elite competition campaign this season, it is worth reflecting on the journey made by Scottish sides since it started a quarter of a century ago. That first season was a rude awakening as the districts of Edinburgh, Glasgow, South and North & Midlands were reborn as professional outfits, though on a fraction of what Scotland’s top players earn now, with the latter two becoming Scottish Borders Reivers and Caledonia Reds.
There were some heavy losses in that first season but the southern heartland delivered a famous 24-16 win over Llanelli at Hawick’s Mansfield Park. Melrose kicking machine Gary Parker delivered all the points with eight penalties in a match held on a Wednesday night just four days after a traumatic 85-28 loss to Pau at the weekend.
“It was a huge eye-opener,” recalled Eric Paxton, pictured inset, who co-coached the Borders team with Roy Laidlaw in that first season.
“Myself and Roy had got a hold of some tapes of Pau and thought they didn’t look that great and really thought we’d have a chance going over there. Then when we got there it was a completely different team. We’d obviously been watching the seconds.
“We later found out they’d had all their first-team squad in a three-week camp preparing for the first European game and they absolutely blew us away.”
As with all the districts, these were not raw amateurs and kids, with international stars spread through the four outfits. The Borders half-back pairing, for example was Bryan Redpath and Craig Chalmers. But it was made clear just how far Scottish rugby had fallen behind.
“The players were hurt by it. In fact there was a bit of a stramash as they wanted to go out on the town. They had the taxis booked. But myself, Roy and Alastair Cranston, who was team manager, stepped in and had to say ‘look, you’re semi-professionals now, you might get in bother’.”
A suitable response came against Llanelli in midweek but, remarkably, the Borders then had to travel to Leicester for a third game in a week, which they lost 43-3. Caledonia ran eventual champions Brive close in a cracker before going down 32-30 at McDiarmid Park. Glasgow enjoyed a heavy win at Newbridge in Wales in the second-tier Challenge Cup then registered three Heineken Cup pool wins the following season to reach a quarter-final play-off which ended in a humiliating 90-19 loss at Leicester Tigers.
A Scotsman got his hands on the trophy for the first time as scrum-half Andy Nicol captained Bath to glory in 1998. Edinburgh became the first Scottish quarter-finalists in 2004 and the final came to Scotland for the first time in 2005, which was most memorable for Toulouse coach Guy Noves being escorted away by police at Murrayfield after a fracas following his side’s extra-time win over Stade Francais.
An Edinburgh side which struggled all season domestically under coach Michael Bradley, made a shock run to the semi-finals in 2012, while Glasgow’s emergence as the big success story of Scottish rugby’s pro era has not quite been replicated in Europe. There have been big wins over French and English opposition but only two quarter-finals achieved.
It all starts again this weekend. The Champions Cup is now big business but, as it was from the start, remains a very tough school indeed.