Ahead of Bath Rugby's European Cup Quarter-Final meeting with Brive on Saturday 1st April, we took a trip down memory lane to talk to Andy Nicol and his memories of the Heineken Cup Final victory over the French side in 1998.
19 years have passed since Nicol captained Bath Rugby to Heineken Cup glory and has vivid memories of what is one of finest moments in the history of the Club.
Bath saw off the challenge of a spirited Pau side in the semi-final and the Blue, Black and White completed the cup run courtesy of a dramatic 19-18 victory over Brive. Nearly two decades on, Nicol recalls how much the European triumph meant to not only the team, but the wider Bath community.
Nicol said: “It was just such a special day, for me personally but also for anyone connected with rugby in Bath. Bath had been such a dominant club for so many years, and they’d dominated the English game. We probably always felt that we were the best team in Europe, but there was no European Cup to prove that.
“So when it (the Heineken Cup) started, it became the Holy Grail – and it really was. Brive were an outstanding side who put 30 points on Leicester, who were a great side themselves. When we got to the final, we knew the track record they had.”
“It was in Bordeaux, in South West France. The advantage of having a home semi-final was then negated when we basically went into the lion’s den. There were 37,000 fans, and I think we had 7,000 go over, which was amazing. But that just proved how much it meant for the City of Bath to have their team in the final. It was the culmination of so much hard work for the club. And we were up against it, the atmosphere was incredible.”
Bolstered by one of the greatest ever backlines, Nicol was quick to pay tribute the crucial role the pack and supporters played on the day, as the Club battled to a hard-fought victory over their French counterparts.
“Walking out for that final, it rivalled anything I was lucky enough to do, captaining my country – just for the atmosphere, it was amazing to see. So many Bath fans had made the journey. And we had a good side – we had a great back line that was our real strength.
“Jon Callard was at 15, Adedayo Adebayo on one wing, Ieuan Evans on the other wing; Phil de Glanville and Jeremy Guscott in the centre, Mike Catt at stand-off, and I was scrum-half. So it was as good as any international side.
“Dan Lyle at number 8, who was a fantastically talented American player, which maybe people don’t remember; Richard Webster and Nathan Thomas were in the back row, two Welsh guys, really hard, hard guys. Two guys in the middle row, Nigel Redman and Martin Haag, two Bath stalwarts. And up front we had Victor Ubogu, Dave Hilton and Mark Regan at hooker. So it was a good side. But it was the back line that really were the stars. But it was the forwards that won us that game.”
The game wasn’t as straight forward as many of the travelling supporters would have hoped, trailing by nine points at half-time. However, a 19-point haul from fullback Jonathan Callard secured Bath's place in the history books by the narrowest of margins. However, they were made to sweat in the closing stages. Both Christophe Lamaison and Lisandro Arbizu had opportunities from the boot late on in the game, but Bath clung on to the relief of Nicol.
“We were 15-6 down and had five scrums on our own line, and we held them out. They kept going for the push-over, and we held out, held out every time. And that allowed us to go down the other end: we got a penalty, and then we scored a try. We took the lead with seconds to go, which was fantastic – Jon Callard kicked over the penalty. And then all we needed to do, really, was just see out the game. And then we gave away a penalty at the next line-out, and Lamaison kicked it, and I’m standing next to the post, thinking: I had my hands on the trophy, and now it’s gone. Thankfully he missed, and we touched the ball down, 19-18, and it was just a wonderful day.”
The euphoria was clear to see and Bath made history in becoming the first British team to win the European Cup. Draped in a tartan scarf, the Scottish international lifted the trophy above his head and the celebrations began. However, they came at a cost as Nicol explains.
“My wife was there, and it was great for me personally, the players, but it also for the Club. I’ve got such an affinity and affection for the club, because they were very good for me, it was the best five years of my career and I was just really humbled to be the player, the captain that followed the greats like Roger Spurrell, Stuart Barnes and Jon Hall, Andy Robinson and Phil de Glanville, who’d captained the club to fantastic success in the domestic environment, winning cups at Twickenham, and winning the league. I was the one who was lucky enough to make that next step and lift the trophy and be the captain of Bath who lifted the European Cup. So there’s always a corner of the West Country where I’m welcome, which is lovely. And it was a just a magic, magic moment.
“Then we came back to Bath the next day. 7,000 made the trip, which was incredible, but there was even more waiting in Victoria Park, for us to bring the trophy back to them. This was 1st February, so it was freezing cold, but they were still out there waiting for us. I came out of the bus with the trophy, forgetting that there was a wing mirror on the side of the bus, and I lifted the trophy to acknowledge the crowd, and I knocked the wing mirror off and damaged the side of the European Cup – I think I caused about £5,000 worth of damage.
“Winning the Heineken Cup was without doubt the greatest achievement of my career. I’m so fortunate to have shared it with so many good friends.”
Tickets for the European Rugby Challenge Cup Quarter-Final against Brive on Saturday 1st April (12:45 kick-off) start from £15 for adults and £5 for children by visiting bathrugby.com or ringing the Bath Rugby Ticket Office on 0844 448 1865.