On the ten-year anniversary of one of rugby's most bizarre and gripping showdowns, we hear all about the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final from those who were caught up in it
Cardiff Blues and Leicester Tigers Penalty Shootout: An Oral History
It is a game that is still talked about in utter disbelief today.
On 3 May 2009, Cardiff Blues hosted Leicester Tigers at the national stadium for a Heineken Cup semi-final. The visitors dominated the first half, but after a stirring Blues fightback, a draw and a sterile spell of extra-time, we witnessed one of rugby’s strangest and most gripping finale’s to a match: a penalty shootout. We have seen nothing like it in professional rugby before or since.
Ten years on, we talk to those who were there, who battled through the 80 minutes, who stayed awake for the extra-time, who felt the tension, who made the key decisions and, ultimately, took and missed the vital kicks…
THE 80 MINUTES
In the first half the Blues lost lock and captain Paul Tito early, Leicester scored through Scott Hamilton and the hosts relied on Ben Blair and Leigh Halfpenny to keep them in touch with the visitors. It is 13-12 to Leicester at half-time. But the Tigers turn it on after the break and a further try, through Geordan Murphy, and a couple of Julien Dupuy kicks make it 26-12.
Jamie Roberts (Blues inside centre): “We didn’t play too well in the first half. Scott Hamilton ran a real nice line off an offload and he went in from 40m. I can remember their tight forwards putting in some offloads and them going under our sticks early in the second half.”
Martyn Williams (Blues openside): “They battered us in the first half. We were a good team, but we just didn’t turn up in that first half.”
Jordan Crane (Tigers No 8): “What happened after probably takes away from what a good game it was… We got in a great position, were 14 points up.”
Ben Blair (Blues full-back): “They put a lot of pressure on us at the breakdown and that’s what Leicester were known for back in those days – they were a little bit better than they are now, from what I can see! They were a big-match team in those days. They broke our blitz defence down quite well. They ran some hard inside shoulders and scored a few good tries.
“We were reasonably confident going into it and we’d just beaten Toulouse there (at the Millennium Stadium) in the quarter-final. But Leicester really turned up and performed.”
Richard Cockerill (Tigers head coach): “We were 14 points up with 20 minutes to go and I can remember them coming back…”
In the last quarter of regulation time, the tide turns…
Sam Vesty (Tigers Inside centre): “Toby Flood goes off. We were 14 points up, but then in the game we get two yellow cards and they score two tries, going the length.”
Tom Shanklin (Blues outside centre): “There were a couple of great tries that stood out and one was Jamie’s. I remember thinking, ‘I’m way off with a support line here,’ whereas you should anticipate a break like that. That hole opened up for him and he manages to finish.”
Roberts: “We’d practised this lineout move all week where (fly-half) Nicky Robinson would get the ball, dummy-scissors and he’d needle the ball through a couple of forwards and give a sort of ‘tunnel ball’ to me. And it worked an absolute peach.
“There’s 72 minutes on the clock, lineout around halfway, and the pass is pinpoint perfect from Nicky and I’m just in space. I make this line break and I’m thinking, ‘Do I pass it, do I pass it?’ There’s no defenders on me, I keep going, and I find myself over the try-line.”
Shanklin: “Then for the other try Tom James get the ball and I’m running an inside support line but he doesn’t even need me, he finishes off a wonder try in the left-hand corner.”
Roberts: “It’s around the 74th minute and we caught the kick-off. ( carries, Nicky gives me the ball and I think, ‘Right, head down here.’ I stepped someone – still to this day I tease Lewis Moody, because I bumped him – and then put James away. He did the rest and finished in the corner from halfway.”
Williams: “Tom James’s try was a hell of a finish. But the thing that really sticks out for me were Ben Blair’s conversions (for both tries). They were crunch.”
Crane : “Within five minutes it was 26-all. They’ve scored two tries and Ben Blair’s kicked (both conversions) from the touchline to even it up.”
Vesty: “They score two tries going the length and Blair got two kicks from the touchline. Which is mental.”
Roberts: “For me, those last ten minutes were amazing, primarily for Ben’s place-kicking. People talk about try-scorers and certain tries, but without that accuracy off the tee, we’d have lost that game in the 80.”
Blair: “I always felt it was easy to kick in that stadium, ay. I’d played there a few times before and I don’t think I’d missed any. The ball they used in the Heineken Cup also used to stay so nice and straight. You don’t really feel the pressure when you’re in the heat of the moment so yeah, I suppose I managed to bang a couple of good kicks over.”
Regulation time finished 26-26. We are into added time.
Vesty: “Extra-time was cagey. I don’t remember it, remember it, but we were back to 15 by then and that helped but there was a defence focus and there were a lot of tired bodies. Until you’ve been there and experienced it, it’s quite a hard thing (to understand). Under all that pressure it was definitely a different game.
“And massively emotional. Thinking you’ll win the game, worrying about losing it, to going back to nil-nil effectively, was a bit of a kick in the privates. At that point it was almost ours to throw away. So going conservative was probably the best way to go about it.”
Roberts: “It was a bit of a stalemate, extra-time. Nothing really materialised. Everybody was afraid to play in their own half. It was at a time when refs were giving a lot of breakdown penalties, for not rolling away, holding on… And it was like that during the game. But it was a real game of chess in that extra-time. Anything in our own half we just kicked – get rid of it – because you knew one breakdown penalty means the other side are in with a shot to win the match.
“No one wanted to go in for the killer blow because of the fear of conceding.”
Crane: “It just seemed like no team wanted to go and win it, and it felt like the ref didn’t want to give a penalty.”
Williams: “Alain Rolland was the referee and I don’t think there were any penalties within kicking range. That was bizarre.”
Cockerill: “Rolland had been fussy all day around penalties, and then in extra-time we’re equal on tries, equal on points and it was like he put his whistle in his pocket for the 20 minutes of extra-time.”
Williams: “As you can imagine the tension was pretty incredible. And I was 33, so I was knackered as well. In your mid-Thirties, 80 minutes is more than suffice! When it came to my extra-time I remember being absolutely whacked, spent.”
Tensions are high and no one is going to score any points. Suddenly thoughts turn to what happens next. Which is a penalty shootout. But who is telling anyone about it?
Roberts: “There’s this mad rush with about five minutes before the end because no one really knew what was going on. I got subbed off. Dai Young (Blues coach) must have looked across our back-line and though, ‘Who’s the worst place-kicker here?’ They got Ceri Sweeney on the pitch because he’s obviously better than most of us. So I didn’t take a kick.”
Blair: “I didn’t know at all who told us it would be penalties. The first I heard was milling around after the extra-time. Maybe it was Martyn Williams who said something? He’s the kind of guy who knows everything.”
Williams: “I’m the same as everyone else. You’d think we’d remember?”
Crane: “I can’t even remember who told us, but as soon as I found out I said I’d take one.”
Cockerill: “We were checking regulation. We went down for extra-time and we were equal on tries so they (the officials) said it went to penalties. We went, ‘Well how does that work?’ They told us it was on the 22m-line, in front of the posts, first five go and then if equal you go to sudden death.
“So we got to extra-time, we didn’t speak to the boys, and we’re asking who’s our kickers, who’s left on the pitch, what are we doing, and we literally wrote it down on a bit of paper in the coaches’ box. We were asking, ‘Do we go best kickers first or worst kickers first?’
“It was then basically a huddle after extra-time and telling them, ‘Right, you take the first kick.’ It was ‘Oh am I?’ or ‘I don’t want to kick.’ Well you’ll have to bloody kick because you’re the only one left!”
There was one last moment that went down in folklore leading up to the shootout, though…
Cockerill: “I remember taking Dupuy off for Harry Ellis (for the last five minutes of regular play) because of his defence, and they scored two tries. So obviously one of our goalkickers is off the field as Toby Flood is off with a snapped Achilles. In extra-time we were wondering, ‘What happens now?’ and I said, ‘I think it goes to penalty kicks?’
“Danny Hipkiss was on the field and he had blood. We wanted to put Dupuy back on, knowing there was a minute to go and he could kick for goal. But nobody could find him. Eventually the physios found him in his underpants, having a cigarette and drinking a bottle of Heineken, watching the game on TV. We had to get his kit back on and get him back on the field to play the last 30 seconds and then kick the first goal.”
Vesty: “Julian is such a typically angry, French scrum-half – a top, top man – our trainer went to get him out the changing rooms and he was genuinely watching it with his socks off and a cigarette in his hand. He was like ‘F***ing hell!’”
Roberts: “I still don’t know if Danny Hipkiss had a cut on his head or not…”
Vesty: “Yeah, well, it hit the papers as ’Bloodgate Two’ but he did have six or seven stitches in his head!”
Cockerill: “I remember the physio tells Dupuy that we need him back on the field and he’s saying to them: ‘No. It’s impossible, it’s finished.’ I told them: ‘Tell him. To get his kit on. Come back out. To the bench.’ And so under duress he decided he would come back out and kick the goal. He said, ‘This is f***ing s***!'”
Out on the field the first five kickers have been selected for each team. After they kick it’s sudden death. First up was Blair for the Blues.
Blair: “I was the first kicker, which was quite nice – to get it over and done with.
“I’ve actually had a couple of nightmares about missing the kick, ay! It’s pretty hard to miss but it can be done, can’t it, obviously! Thankfully I was kicking pretty well so managed to bang it over pretty easy. I was actually pretty confident we were going to win. We didn’t think it’d go to more than five or six kicks.”
Dupuy was next…
Vesty: “I remember Julian being like, ‘F***ing hell, what am I doing here?’ Putting the ball down and smashing it through the middle. I’ll always remember that. That’s just who he is.”
Crane: “He’s kicked his goal, ran back and finished his fag and his Heineken!”
Nicky Robinson slots his, and so it’s Vesty’s turn…
Vesty: “I walked up to my kick and 100% knew I was going to kick it. I was really confident. I’m not the world’s best kicker by any stretch, but I knew I was going to kick it. Got my run-up right, ran up to the ball, nailed it and then immediately broke down in a load of emotion while walking back.
“I was like, ‘This is a crap way to lose a game,’ and it was completely draining me. I vividly remember that. I went back in the huddle and just being completely emotionally gone.”
Halfpenny lands his. So does Geordan Murphy. It’s 3-3 on kicks. Then Sweeney sends one over. Next is Johne Murphy… and he misses wide left to hand advantage to the Blues.
Crane: “We were in a huddle together so weren’t really watching them together. When Johne missed the fourth penalty, by a mile, we’re in this huddle and we’ve got the Premiership semi-final the next week so we’re saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll just focus on next week…’ Thinking it’s over.”
At 4-3 to the Blues, fifth up for the hosts is Tom James, who then misses wide right.
Shanklin: “Now you can tell from the way Tom uses his tee, places a ball, way he walks back, that he had done a fair bit of kicking with Neil Jenkins. So you’re fairly confident in your first five kickers. I was a senior player at the time but by no chance was I a place-kicker. It’s methodical when you kick – you’re trying to recreate the same strike – and with all of those guys you’re fairly confident with that… But if we’re brutally honest Tom should have got his!”
Crane: “Tom James ended up shanking it the other way and all of a sudden we’re back in this now. It flipped again. Here we go. So Hamilton is our fifth and Aaron Mauger sixth, but he’s had a bad back for ages. He kicked his (and so has Shanklin) and then Richie Rees for them literally skimmed the crossbar as it’s going over. We’re holding our breath…”
Williams: “We all expected TJ to slot it and we’re into our last two backs and let’s be honest, the least skilful of our backs really. Shanks, in fairness, nailed his and Richie’s was the ugliest kick you’ve ever seen but it got there.”
Shanklin: “I took a few steps back and just drilled it through the middle. I was just conscious not to think about it too much because when you look back it’s the most nervous thing ever. It’s a simple kick but it becomes incredibly difficult with the pressure. The relief was absolutely huge after.
“Then Richie went and kicked the ugliest kick I’ve ever seen in my life and it just scraped over. He actually scooped it. We were pretty lucky he didn’t get done for a double hit! Rolland was the ref and you could see him having a little ‘Well that was close’ look.”
Vesty: “I could barely watch other people kick but I remember Rees trembling at the back of the run, really jittery, and he hits it like hallway up his shin and it just creeps up and over and creeps just inside the right post.”
Roberts: “I’ll never forget Richie’s face as he turned round, when it landed. He just blagged it!”
It’s into the forwards for Leicester, as Craig Newby takes the seventh kick for the Tigers to keep things equal on penalties at 6-6. He does the business.
Blair: “When I saw Craig Newby stepping up, I’d played with him at the Highlanders so I knew he’d definitely get it. He’s just one of those characters.”
Cockerill: “Newby’s a very good footballer, so there’s no way he’s missing the kick. Him and Jordan Crane would stay behind in training and kick for goal, so it’s one of those where, as a coach you say, ‘You’re never going to kick for goal, so what are you doing, you’re wasting you’re energy.’ They moan about training too much and then spend 20 minutes kicking. Of course, then they tell me, ‘We told you kicking in practice would be needed one day!’”
It’s well and truly Sudden Death now. Next up for the Blues is the man they call Nugget.
Williams: “I’ve watched the shootout back and I can remember giggling and laughing, not for a split-second thinking I’ll go up.
“But I put myself up because I remember looking around and realising we were into the forwards then. I can categorically tell you I wasn’t nervous, it was just surreal. I was knackered but I’d kicked a bit at Ponty youth, I was a half decent goalkicker, so I just took it upon myself to be the first forward up. Now, Xavier Rush is a good footballer, Andy Powell, Gethin Jenkins is a good footballer – in hindsight I should have sent one of them up!”
Crane: “I didn’t really expect Martyn Williams to miss with the sort of player he is, the footballer he is. Then I was next after him…”
Williams: “If you’re a forward, (in training) you always kick off those plastic cones that fitness coaches put out. You’re forever messing about. Never in my life have I used a kicking tee.
“When I was walking up to take my kick, Shanklin says to me, ‘Use that red kicking tee’. You can tell I wasn’t thinking straight and I did, whereas I should’ve just used the one you use in training.”
Shanklin: “As you get down there, it’s like you pick your weapon. There’s like six or seven different kicking tees. I put it on a simple, old school, red, Gilbert kicking tee so it stands upright. We’re not league-style kickers, we just messed around.
“There was also a massive bucket of sand down there as Ceri Sweeney liked to kick off sand so there was everything down there to kick off of you can imagine!”
Williams: “Now that isn’t why I missed my kick – it was horrendous technique and I hooked it – but you remember small things like that. When you hook it you realise what has happened. It was difficult to put into words.”
It’s advantage Tigers. After Williams’s miss, Crane has the chance to win the shootout.
Williams: “I didn’t know Jordan Crane, I’d never seen him play, I didn’t know what his footballing ability was like, but it felt like an inevitability after I missed. You just sensed that was it.”
Crane: “I’m from a football background, so there was a lot of kicking. When I started rugby at 14, I’d kick goals. I did at school, so had kicked before – though not at that scale. But when I turned professional, you don’t get forwards kicking so I parked that, bar messing about at training.
“I literally thought, ‘Couple of steps back, get lined up, whack it and hope for the best’! If you go out and train every day and if you stand on the 22 and look at the posts, you’d think, ‘I’ll nail that easy.’ But it felt a lot further away and the posts felt a lot smaller.
“It probably wasn’t the best I’ve ever struck a football or a rugby ball, but it went over and obviously that was the game.”
Blair: “I can just remember Crane at the end. I’m not sure if he was hot-dogging. Well, they won and we were out and obviously it was pretty deflating, but fair play to him.”
Crane: “I’d spoken to my brother that morning. My niece was one and a half, and she used to blow kisses with her mouth open, so he said if I scored a try I should do that as a celebration.
“Obviously I didn’t score but when I kicked that, I did it. Some might think I was being arrogant or whatever, but it was nothing to do with that at all. It was a moment for the family.”
After the match, there is a lot of consoling and plenty of disbelief.
Crane: “Because it’s not like football, Scotty Hamilton ran over, we console the Cardiff team, it died down and you show respect to the opposition, as rugby values are. It could have easily been the other way around.”
Cockerill: “It was just luck wasn’t it. Obviously Cardiff Blues had the opportunity to win it and then missed. Then Jordan’s misspent youth playing football and fact he was always kicking goals after training meant he got the one to win.
“To lose like that, for Dai Young, to not go to a final, is pretty tough isn’t it? Both teams came off and I think we were almost feeling sad for them to lose like that. Obviously pleased to win, but it’s such a weird way of winning a game that you almost feel more for the opposition than delighted you won.”
Shanklin: “At the end of the game there’s a bit of relief that it’s not you, you’ve done your job and poor Nugget has to deal with that. He’s a back-row, he’s not expected to do that and at some stage someone’s going to miss.
“I left him alone for between five and ten minutes because you could see he was gutted. It was only when we got in the changing rooms after and I could see his head was down and in situations like that, ideally you need someone to put their arm around you and bring you back to life a bit and tell you not to worry about it.
“But being quite a brutal bloke and it being a brutal environment, I said, ‘Guys, put your hands together for Stuart Pearce!’ I started listing off guys who had missed penalties. ‘Here he is lads, Chris Waddle! It’s Gareth Southgate!’
“I got into him a bit but it was vastly tongue in cheek. If someone’s taking the Micky out of you, it’s better than no one saying a word.”
Vesty: “It is completely, inherently unfair that we won a game of rugby because Martyn Williams can’t kick the ball between the posts. He was probably Man of the Match…”
Ah, but Williams wasn’t Man of the Match. In fact, lost amongst all of the madness was the fact Tom Croft, playing at lock, got the award. No one interviewed could remember, though Crane suggest that Croft earned a Lions tour that summer off the back of his exploits.
The Tigers team also reveal one additional detail that follows this saga.
Vesty: “The shootout definitely wouldn’t have come back around. We actually had the other seven guys kick in the next day’s training and only one of them got it, so it wouldn’t have come back round to me!
Cockerill: “It was the ones who were left over who kicked, which wasn’t many. They were rubbish!
“I can remember Harry Ellis asking if he could go up the other end of the pitch and practise and I was like, ‘Mate, I don’t think it’s the time or the place, it’s a bit late for that now!’”
In the final, Michael Cheika’s Leinster beat Tigers 19-16. Leicester did win the league, while the Blues had won the EDF Energy Cup.
And yet it is this moment that keeps coming up, time and again. Ten years on, how do those who were in it feel about it now? We may never see anything like this again…
Roberts: “That year was brutal on a personal note, because we lost the Heineken Cup semi-final on a penalty shootout, we (Wales) lost a Six Nations by a last-minute Ronan O’Gara drop-goal, and then we lost the Lions Test series to a last-minute 50m kick!
“But we had a great side that year. A great mix of youth and experience. There were a few of us younger lads coming into the side – Tom James, myself, Leigh Halfpenny was there, Bradley Davies up front – and we had great, experienced players to nurture us through those games.
“What could have been that year…”
Vesty: “Ten years has absolutely flown by since. Some of the emotions I can feel from it are very close still…
“Quite a few people still ask about it. Because it only happened once, people remember where they were, how many pints they drank and decent memories of a great game and a bit of drama to go with the X-factor.”
Blair: “I still get asked about it a lot actually. It was a great game to be part of, apart from getting on the wrong side of the ledger.
“In some ways we were probably punching above our weight in these games but we had a good little squad there. We didn’t often play together as much as we’d want because you only have your full team in those Heineken games because of Welsh commitments. It was good to have back the likes of Martyn, Gethin, Jamie. To get to play with those guys in Europe was fantastic and I have great memories of that. We had a little bit of success and it was good fun.”
Cockerill: “In hindsight it was great to be part of. You manage these things in the moment that you hadn’t planned for. It was my first year as coach after taking over from Heyneke Meyer that season. As a rookie coach, to be in that situation as it happened, was interesting to say the least. So it was a good experience in that regard. And one that only myself and Dai have gone through in the last half century or so.
“On the day both sides were part of a great game of rugby, a great spectacle and we were almost apologetic to win it to be fair.”
Williams: “I remember bumping into the Ospreys boys who were out for a beer in the night as well – and they were probably willing the Tigers on in fairness! But I remember speaking to Jonathan Thomas who said on TV it was just gripping. Even if you weren’t into rugby, everyone was just glued to it.
“People still always bring it up – especially when we get to the knockouts in Europe, your name gets dragged up!”
Crane: “Now with social media it’ll come up every few months. With guys I play with now, and because it was ten years ago, they might not even remember. ‘Aww, was that you?’ and ‘I saw that on Instagram’ but they were ten or 11 at the time. People remember you for it but it’s a very small part of my career – I’d give it all up to lift the trophy three weeks later, though!”
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Shanklin: “It’s quite nice because people will talk about it for a long time. You’ll see it crop up in quizzes, on TV, on social media, all over computer screens. In a strange way it’s nice to be involved in it. I took a kick, I got to feel the pressure. For that aspect, being part of history for the wrong reasons is still nice to be a part of.”
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