Heineken Cup hits the spot - again
Graham Jenkins
May 4, 2009
Leicester's Scott Hamilton congratulates team mate Jordan Crane after he kicked the match-winning place kick while Cardiff Blues' Martyn Williams reflects on his missed kick, Cardiff Blues v Leicester Tigers, Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, May 3, 2009
Delight and despair: Leicester's Scott Hamilton and Jordan Crane celebrate the match-winning kick while Cardiff Blues flanker Martyn Williams reflects on his crucial miss © Getty Images

I've said it before and no doubt will say it again - the Heineken Cup never fails deliver in terms of excitement and drama and this year's semi-finals emphatically endorsed that belief.

European Rugby Cup chiefs will once again be thanking the rugby gods for blessing them with two more superb cup ties that underlined the tournament's status as arguably the most thrilling in world rugby. But that delight will have been tempered by the first-ever penalty shoot-out that was forced upon Leicester Tigers and Cardiff Blues.

The prospect of rugby's version of Russian roulette has been lurking in the background of the sport for several years, waiting to rear its ugly head. Most notably England and Australia flirted with such a scenario in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final before Jonny Wilkinson drop-kicked his way into the history books.

The sport's luck ran out at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday. We always knew it would be a cruel way to decide a game and one look at tearful Blues flanker Martyn Williams and a review of the tapes should be enough convince a re-think on how to end such matches. But to focus so heavily on the last act of a fascinating weekend would be a disservice to the efforts of those players who performed so valiantly when the eyes of the rugby world were on them.

A world record crowd for a club game packed into Croke Park on Saturday for the first semi-final and 82,206 fans were treated to one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's 14-year history. Defending champions Munster came into the clash as heavy favourites but were outplayed by Irish rivals Leinster who discovered a clinical edge where they had previously suffered for a lack of backbone.

Three times before they had come within touching distance of the final but each time they had come up short - including a disheartening loss to Munster at the same stage in 2006 and a loss to Perpignan in 2003 when a place in the Lansdowne Road finale beckoned. But not this time.

Led by the inspirational Brian O'Driscoll, Michael Chieka's side upset the odds with a superb all-round display built on the excellence of the likes of Australian Rocky Elsom. The battle of the breakdown was always going to be key to the clash and Elsom was ably supported by Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip upstaging their Munster counterparts with the latter putting in a match-leading 16 tackles.

For once Munster failed to rise to the occasion and were arguably undercooked a little over-confident following their one-sided quarter-final victory over Ospreys and their recent successes against their rivals. And not even the famous red army of supporters could inspire their side onto another famous win.

And you couldn't have written the match-defining moment. A loose pass from Munster fly-half Ronan O'Gara was seized upon by O'Driscoll who snatched the ball out of Munster captain Paul O'Connell's grasp - as if stealing back the Lions captaincy that was handed to the lock last month. O'Driscoll then raced the length of the field and although he may have lacked the zip that he displayed in a Lions shirt against Australia in 2001 he still had enough in the tank to swing the tie decidedly in favour of his side.

Unsurprisingly flanker Alan Quinlan got a call from the disciplinary chiefs after the game regarding his clawing of Leinster skipper Leo Cullen. Quinlan's decision to take his frustration out on Cullen's face is likely to prove costly and will have Lions head coach Ian McGeechan consulting his stand-by list of reserves for the second time in a fortnight.

"Not one person will have left as a fan of the shoot-out - and in that I include Leicester's players and management."

And so to Cardiff where another bumper crowd of 40,000-plus fans had bought into the euro dream. Thrilling twist followed dramatic turn over 100 minutes over pulsating action with Leicester and then Cardiff Blues looking destined for Murrayfield before the Tigers finally booked a date with Leinster.

Leicester, like Leinster came into the semi-final as underdogs, with the expansive game the Blues had previously served up expected to give them the edge. But Leicester's big match temperament came to the fore. Despite some noteworthy contributions from the Blues' Xavier Rush and Gethin Jenkins it was Leicester who took a grip on the game on the back of tries from Scott Hamilton and Geordan Murphy and the efforts of man of the match Tom Croft and lock partner Ben Kay.

At 26-12 with an hour gone the game looked over - the Tigers' pack had the nudge on their Welsh counterparts and a sterling defensive effort had largely shackled their attacking threat. But they were not prepared to give up without a fight.

Under considerable pressure Leicester were happy to cross the line in their attempts to stem the flow and were penalised accordingly. Flanker Craig Newby was the first to visit the sin-bin and while they were unable to breach the defence in that time the dam would eventually break when fullback Geordan Murphy was also giving his marching orders.

Jamie Roberts got the ball rolling before Tom James finished off a sweeping move to grab the second try but it was the kicking ability of Ben Blair that hauled them level - nailing two touchline conversions.

Suddenly the momentum was with the Blues but the clock was against them and would eventually beat them. Nerves and fatigue hampered any invention in extra time while both sides juggled their kicking options with substitutions under the watchful eye of the officials who - like us - were aware of what was to come.

We were now in unchartered territory and if it weren't for the excellent referee Alain Rolland and his assistants we would all have been lost. The ground was no stranger to penalty shoot-outs with Arsenal and Liverpool having won FA Cup Finals via such lotteries. But there were no goalkeepers to steal the headlines here - just warriors who could win or lose it for their team. After seven successful kicks Leicester's Johne Murphy thought he'd lost if for his side when he missed but James really did lose it when handed the chance to seal it.

But in missing at least he knew the ignominy would befall another. And that player would be Martyn Williams - a world leader at the breakdown but not at place-kicking. His crucial miss allowed Leicester's Jordan Crane to kick his side to victory.

Instead of elation there was sympathy as Leicester moved to commiserate their opponents. Perhaps they didn't have the energy to celebrate or the inclination to revel in the nature of their victory. Not one person will have left as a fan of the shoot-out - and in that I include Leicester's players and management.

In a season dominated by Ireland and Wales, be it the Six Nations, Lions or Anglo-Welsh Cup, all the talk before the weekend was of a Munster v Cardiff Blues finale. But Leinster and Leicester did not read the script and have been rewarded with a shot at Heineken Cup glory where more drama is assured.


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