Leicester Tigers will face Leinster in the final of the Heineken Cup after resisting one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the game to win on a place-kick penalty shoot-out after grinding out a 26-26 draw in 100 minutes of play at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
A game as brilliant as this one should not have been ended by such ludicrous means.
The climactic lottery was brought to an abrupt end as Martyn Williams of Cardiff missed his sudden-death pop at goal and Jordan Crane managed to see his response over the crossbar.
But it would be a cruel man to point a finger at the heroic Welshman who did so much to put his side in a position to win the game outright and without the sadism.
For those of you unversed in rugby shoot-outs, join the club. Alternative shots at goal were taken from the 22, five apiece from selected kickers. When that ended 4-4 it went to sudden death and both sides were forced to fish around for reluctant forwards – and Williams picked the shortest straw.
This is how it unfolded after the Blues won the toss to begin…
Cardiff Blues: Blair (o), Robinson (o), Halfpenny (o), Sweeney (o), James (x).
SD: Shanklin (o), Spice (o), Williams (x).
Leicester Tigers: Dupuy (o), Vesty (o), G Murphy (o), J Murphy (x), Hamilton (o).
SD: Mauger (o), Newby (o), Crane (o).
But how can we begin to describe the events that led to the crazy finale? In a word: epic. It’s overused in sporting circles, but it is a word we have the utmost right to apply to events at Millennium Stadium. This tournament really does refresh parts other competitions can’t reach.
Leicester were in total control and led 26-12 with 20 minutes to play. Leinster were probably already compiling their homework.
But two yellow cards for the visitors – that old English problem – led directly to two magical tries from Cardiff which, in turn, led to a nervy period of extra time that yield no points.
It goes without saying that there was nothing between these two sides, but it was probably Leicester’s reserves of experience that saw them edge through. They are not so much tigers as mountain goats – they positively thrive as paths grow steeper and they rarely lose their footing.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of any another side that could hold out for a win (if that’s what it was) after shipping two tries at the death of regulation time.
Ultimately, grit and resolve beat creativity, but Cardiff can hold their heads up high: they have a young backbone and their time will surely come – and when it does, it could last for quite a while.
The locals looked down and out, trailing as they did 26-12 with just six minutes of normal time remaining, and their heroic comeback was the stuff of fiction.
Converted tries by Wales internationals Jamie Roberts and Tom James – which rounded off an electrifying 80-metre move – looked to have ruined Leicester’s date with Leinster in Edinburgh.
Alas, it was not to be. Leicester, who ended the season at the summit of the Guinness Premiership table, remain on course for a third European and domestic double.
Until the wheels came off along with Newby and Geordan Murphy, the visitors early dominance was such that Julien Dupuy’s first three misses at goal were just about written off as unimportant.
But the Frenchman came up trumps by landing his next six shots, giving him a 16-point haul to complement superbly-worked tries for wing Scott Hamilton and Geordan Murphy.
Ben Blair and Leigh Halfpenny each kicked two penalties for the Blues, but Toulouse’s quarter-final conquerors failed to score after trailing 13-12 at half-time until their late two-try burst.
Blair nervelessly added both touchline conversions, yet it was Leicester who ultimately prevailed amid dramatic scenes.
The Blues fielded five of their South Africa-bound Lions contingent, but a sixth – Wales number eight Andy Powell – had to be content with a place on the bench as cover for in-form New Zealander Xavier Rush.
Leicester sprung a selection surprise at scrum-half as Lions number nine Harry Ellis missed out behind Dupuy.
Blair booted Cardiff ahead in the 14th minute, but only after Blues skipper Paul Tito had limped off.
Despite Frenchman Dupuy’s inaccuracy, Leicester enjoyed territorial supremacy and scored 10 points in four minutes.
England fly-half Toby Flood created a superb try when his clever run and brilliant pass freed Hamilton on a weaving run to the line.
Dupuy added the conversion and then kicked a penalty as Leicester forged a 10-3 lead.
The Blues had to reply swiftly and they were helped by Leicester’s indiscipline, with Blair and Halfpenny helping themselves during a damaging six-minute spell.
Halfpenny booted a penalty from just inside Leicester’s half, then Blair slotted a 35-metre effort before Halfpenny landed another long-range effort, assisted by Flood being penalised for dissent.
Dupuy though, had the last word of a fast and furious half, slotting another penalty after poor defensive work by Blues scrum-half Richie Rees that left his half-back partner Nicky Robinson in no-man’s land.
Leicester looked to build on their one-point interval advantage and Flood restarted the contest as an increasingly influential performer.
And it told on the Blues within five minutes when his wonderfully soft hands sent skipper Murphy racing over between the posts for a try that Dupuy improved.
With Tom Croft making a mockery of his Lions snub, the Tiger upped the gears to leave Cardiff with a mountain to climb at 20-12 adrift and two further Dupuy penalties during the third quarter put Leicester 14 points ahead.
The Blues sensed a glimmer of hope when Newby was sin-binned 19 minutes from time but they could not break Leicester’s resistance until the 74th minute when Roberts ghosted through to score a beauty.
It made for a pulsating finale, and James’s scintillating breakaway score – converted by Blair – sent the tie into 20 minutes of extra time, then that awful shoot-out.
For Cardiff Blues:
Tries: Roberts, James
Cons: Blair 2
Pens: Blair 2, Halfpenny 2
For Leicester Tigers:
Tries: Hamilton, G Murphy
Cons: Dupuy 2
Pens: Dupuy 4
Yellow card(s): Newby (Leicester Tigers) – deliberate knock-on, 61; G Murphy (Leicester Tigers) – killing the ball, 67.
Cardiff Blues: 15 Ben Blair, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Tom James, 10 Nicky Robinson, 9 Richie Rees, 8 Xavier Rush, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Maama Molitika, 5 Paul Tito (c), 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Tauf’au Filise, 2 Gareth Williams, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 John Yapp, 17 Rhys Thomas, 18 Deiniol Jones, 19 Andy Powell, 20 Darren Allinson, 21 Ceri Sweeney, 22 Gareth Thomas.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Geordan Murphy (c), 14 Scott Hamilton, 13 Dan Hipkiss, 12 Sam Vesty, 11 Johne Murphy, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Julien Dupuy, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Ben Woods, 6 Craig Newby, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Tom Croft, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 George Chuter, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Julian White, 18 Marco Wentzel, 19 Lewis Moody, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Aaron Mauger, 22 Matt Smith.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistants: George Clancy (Ireland), David Keane (Ireland)
TMO: Brian Fitzgerald (Ireland)
Here at Lovell Rugby we think Penalties did not look right in Rugby and definately not the right way to finish such a massive game? whats your thoughts?