Cigarettes and missed kicks: Cardiff Blues v Leicester shootout 10 years on
Martyn Williams struggles to remember the exact details of his ill-fated role in professional rugby union’s first ever shootout.
He has two Grand Slams, 100 Wales caps and three tours with the British and Irish Lions to his name, and yet he still gets asked about his miss which cost Cardiff Blues their Heineken Cup semi-final against Leicester.
It is now 10 years since that agonising defeat, and the particulars are a little hazy, so Williams has been delving back into the archives.
“I’ve watched it back a few times and laughed about it,” Williams tells the BBC Scrum V Podcast.
“It was so surreal at the time, I don’t really have a good memory.”
On Sunday, 3 May 2009, under a baking sun at what is now Principality Stadium, Cardiff Blues and Leicester Tigers played out an epic 26-26 draw in a Heineken Cup semi-final which entered extra time.
Neither side had much left in the tank and, drained after fighting back from a 14-point deficit, some Blues players were oblivious to the impending shootout.
“Nobody knew what was happening because we hadn’t spoken about it,” says Williams.
“We’d spoken about extra time, but not what happens after. [Referee] Alain Rolland told us we’d have to pick our five kickers.”
‘Dupuy was having a fag’
Leicester seemed a little more prepared for this eventuality.
Their French scrum-half Julien Dupuy had kicked two conversion and four penalties before he was replaced in the 74th minute of normal time.
But with just two minutes left of extra time and the prospect of a shootout looming, he was allowed to return to the field as a blood replacement for centre Dan Hipkiss, who would not have been among their first choices to take a kick.
“Julien Dupuy, and this is God’s honest’s truth, was sat in the changing room, typical French, in his shorts having a fag and they had to go and get him back on,” says Williams.
The Tigers reintroduced Dupuy just in time for the shootout, where he would take his side’s first kick.
As footballers had been doing for decades before, both sets of players gathered near the halfway line for the shootout, unprecedented scenes in rugby union.
One by one, players from either side would have to take a place kick at goal, on the 22-metre line in front of the posts.
First up was the Blues’ Ben Blair, who had been kicking brilliantly from far more difficult positions all afternoon and he duly stroked the ball over with minimal fuss.
For some reason, the TV cameras panned to Williams, who was not listed among the Blues’ chosen five kickers. Was this a sign of things to come?
Former England fly-half Stuart Barnes, Sky’s co-commentator that day, seemed to think so.
“This straight in front of the posts routine, you think it’s going to exact a horrible toll on a non-kicker,” he said.
“Pressure is a funny thing. I sense agony and heartbreak.”
The specialists safely navigated their kicks: Blair, Nicky Robinson, Leigh Halfpenny and Ceri Sweeney for the Blues; Dupuy, Sam Vesty and Geordan Murphy for Leicester.
The first to blink was Tigers back Johne Murphy, pulling his effort wide and presenting Blues wing Tom James with a chance to win it.
“In training, he’d knock them over from 50 metres. Hell of a footballer,” says Williams.
“I remember thinking this was in the bag. And then he missed and I thought ‘What happens now?'”
James’ miss meant the shootout was now in a sudden death situation. If one side scored and the other missed, the game was over.
It was down to the non-specialist kickers – the “least skilful backs like Richie Rees and Tom Shanklin” as Williams jokes – or the forwards, who would almost never take a shot at goal during a match.
Shanklin and Rees – only just – were successful, as were Leicester’s Aaron Mauger and Craig Newby.
Now it was Williams’ turn. The open-side flanker had never taken a place kick during his illustrious career but, as a relatively skilful forward, he was a willing participant.
‘It wasn’t nerves’ – Williams
“I backed myself. I’d kicked for Pontypridd youth, believe it or not, I was okay at kicking,” he says.
Barnes seemed to agree, saying in commentary: “This would be the cruellest thing if Martyn Williams was to miss it. A brilliant footballer, I say Martyn Williams gets it.”
He did not. Williams hooked his effort wide, a horrible miss-kick.
“I can categorically say it wasn’t nerves,” the former Wales captain says.
“Everybody says it was nerves, but I didn’t have time to think about it. It happened so quickly, I didn’t grasp the enormity of the situation.”
Once he had missed, it soon dawned on Williams, who covered his face with his hands.
‘There was not pressure on me’ – Crane
Up next for Leicester was a back-rower of their own, England number eight Jordan Crane.
“Martyn Williams – you wouldn’t expect him to miss – so there was no pressure on me,” Crane recalls.
“It was so surreal in the way that it finished, as a forward you’d never expect to be kicking at goal. You mess around in training, but you never practice for that.
“If you go on the training field on the 22 in front of the posts you think ‘Easily, not a problem’ but, that day, looking at the posts, they looked a lot smaller.”
Crane kept his cool, bisected the posts and lifted his arms in celebration, albeit somewhat mutedly.
“It was such a good game and for it to come down to that, you felt sorry for Cardiff,” Crane adds.
Leicester seemed almost embarrassed to win in such circumstances, and head coach Richard Cockerill made it his priority to console Williams.
“Cockerill was absolute class. He came over to me, as did Lewis Moody, Geordan Murphy,” says Williams.
“I just remember Leicester being class about it. I take my hat off to them.”
Twice champions of this competition, Leicester went on to lose to Leinster in the final, but the sense of regret seemed even stronger for a Blues side packed with Wales Grand Slam winners and Lions.
“My biggest regret as a player is not winning a Heineken Cup,” Williams admits.
For Crane, meanwhile, his kick did not lead to further silverware, but it did secure his place in Leicester – and rugby union – folklore.
“It’s a claim to fame, and people still talk about it,” he says.
“It’s a big part of my rugby career, but it’s not up there as one of my lasting highlights.
“It was nothing about my rugby ability or Martyn Williams’ ability. He had an unbelievable career and he won’t be defined by that.”
Crane left Leicester having won four Premiership titles, joining Bristol in 2016. There’s just one thing left to ask: Has he taken any more kicks since that semi-final in 2009?
“No, not in a game,” he laughs.
“I’m retiring from kicking with a 100% record!”