On a sunny December day in southern France five years ago, Toulouse welcomed the Scarlets in the manner of European champions, sending Clement Poitrenaud over for a hat-trick of tries within the opening half hour.
As a distinctly lop-sided tie approached half-time, there was nothing to suggest beyond blind optimism that the Sospans would make a game of it, never mind turn it upside down. Toulouse were almost out of sight at 24-3 and the scoreboard, as the old adage goes, never lies.
No sooner had the Scarlets produced a try of their own just before half-time than Poitrenaud replied with his fourth to restore the 21-point advantage. And that, incredibly, was as good as it got for Toulouse. Their hitherto outwitted Welsh opponents decided to go for broke on the basis that a desperate situation called for desperate action.
With Stephen Jones, Regan King and Barry Davies to the fore, they scored four converted tries to win 41-34. Those of us who were privileged to have been there swore we would never see its like again until Murrayfield last Friday night when, lo and behold, another team from the RaboDirect PRO12 achieved a come-back on an even more monumental scale.
Where the Scarlets had been 21 points down with half an hour to go, Edinburgh were in an even bigger pickle against Racing Metro – 24 points behind with fewer than 20 minutes left on the clock. They, too, worked the minor miracle of four converted tries, touching them down in even quicker time than Llanelli scored theirs five years earlier.
In fact the Edinburgh quartet from Netani Talei, Tom Brown, Roddy Grant and Tim Visser came in such a rush that Racing still had time to ruin it all by showing that Ronan O’Gara does not have a monopoly of dropping winning goals with the last kick of the match.
Having played themselves into the perfect position for Juan Martin Hernandez to take careful aim from roughly half the distance which Munster allowed O’Gara against first Northampton, then Castres, the Argentinian missed. And that on a night when Edinburgh’s scrum half-cum-fly half Greig Laidlaw and Racing’s Jonathan Wisniewski did not miss a single place-kick between them, nailing a combined total of 17 out of 17.
Never in the course of European rugby has one team scored so many and ended up on the losing side. As Michael Bradley, Edinburgh’s jubilant coach, put it with an understandable air of incredulity: ‘They scored 47 points away from home playing fantastic rugby and didn’t win. You won’t find a better match all year.’
It was the rugby equivalent of the 1985 World Snooker final, the one when Dennis Taylor lost the first seven frames to Steve Davis and ended up potting the final black in the final frame to win 18-17. Gary Player will at least have some appreciation of Edinburgh’s feat, the veteran South African golfer having come from seven down at the 19th to beat the American Tony Lema at the first extra hole in the World Matchplay at Wentworth in 1965.
Before last Friday night, there had been only two cases of teams scoring 40 or more points in the Heineken Cup and losing – Munster losing 48-40 to Harlequins in the late Nineties and the Scarlets 49-42 at Toulouse the year before they went back there and turned the tables.
Edinburgh had also come from behind in the first of the six pool rounds, albeit in a much more modest fashion at the Madejski Stadium to edge out London Irish, again by a single point. Only nine of the 24 starters negotiated the two opening weekends without losing and two-thirds of those are to be found in the RaboDirect PRO12 – one from Scotland (Edinburgh), two from Ireland (Leinster, Munster) and three from Wales (Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets).
Of the French contingent, Toulouse stand alone with a 100 per cent record. English clubs have fared a little better with two – Leicester and the mighty unbeaten Harlequins whose convincing win at Gloucester extends their winning streak this season to twelve.
When Europe starts again after a resumption of the RaboDirect PRO12 for two rounds, six of the unbeaten contenders for the Heineken Cup will play each other in back-to-back ties on successive weekends before Christmas – Scarlets v Munster, Blues v Edinburgh, Quins v Toulouse.
The Welsh regions’ collective unbeaten run will be on the line at the Parc y Scarlets on December 10 with Munster’s return to the town where they lost their first European crown in a quarter-final defeat in 2007. The ultimate acid test for the rejuvenated Scarlets, at Thomond Park eight days later, will surely determine who wins Pool 1.
The same can be said of the Blues or Edinburgh in Pool 2. The first leg is in Cardiff on December 9, the re-match at Murrayfield seven days later. The challenge from the RaboDirect PRO12 does not end there.
The Ospreys, still unbeaten thanks to a draw in Treviso secured by a late long-range penalty from teenage fly half Matthew Morgan, go to Wembley next month for a renewal of hostilities with Saracens. Leinster, who also settled for a draw on the continent thanks to Jonny Sexton’s last-gasp kick against Montpellier, resume their campaign at Bath on December 11 and again six days later at the Aviva Stadium.
When Leinster were last there, in the RaboDirect PRO12 against Munster on November 4, more than 48,000 turned up, by some distance the biggest attendance for a domestic League match in Britain and Ireland this season.