From starting out at Pontypridd to semi-final heartbreak and Amlin Cup success, Cardiff Blues legend Martyn Williams has reflected on the highs and lows of his time playing European rugby.
The former Cardiff Blues and Wales star featured on the latest episode EPCR’s Champions Rugby Show, chatting about his experiences of playing in Europe.
One game that stood out for Williams in the run-up to the 2009 semi final was a historic victory over three-times Heineken Cup champions Toulouse at Principality Stadium.
Williams said: “We had a balance. We had Dai Young as head coach, Bob Norster as CEO and Peter Thomas as Chairman, and they’d made some really shrewd signings in the couple of years leading up to that,” said ‘Nugget’.
“Xavier Rush was an immense signing for us from the Auckland Blues in 2005. Paul Tito and Ben Blair came over then too, so the oversea players that we signed were top, top draw.
“That coincided with the academy talent coming through like Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and Bradley Davies, as well as boys who were at their peak like Gethin Jenkins, Tom Shanklin and maybe myself.
“We had an unbelievable blend for two or three years. We didn’t win the Heineken Cup unfortunately but we went into every competition thinking we could win it because we had such a strong squad.
“They moved the quarter final against Toulouse to the Millennium Stadium that day, because it was such a big game. For them you players like Thierry Dusautoir, Byron Kelleher, Frederik Michalak and an unbelievable group of players.
“The demand for that game was so high, they moved it to the Millennium Stadium, and I can just remember it being such an unbelievably physical and tense game.
“They had the pedigree and know how to win big knockout games. It was our first quarter final at that level, and weren’t quite sure how to go about things.
“The score was 9-6 which says it all about how physical and competitive it was. You always get that with a French pack.
“To come through that was a big statement from our group, as well as beating Biarritz home and away, beating Gloucester away with 14 men, after Tom James got sent off.
“We’d done the hard graft in the group stages so we set up ourselves nicely. To turn over Toulouse at the time, who were such a big team, was a huge effort by everybody.
“We probably put more of an emphasis on the Heineken Cup at the time rather than the league. Dai had made a conscious decision at the time that Europe was the be-all and end-all. That’s the one thing we wanted to win.
“We used the league in preparation for the Heineken Cup in the way we managed it. You could sense with the overseas boys that the Heineken Cup was what really got their juices flowing and that’s why they wanted to come over to the northern hemisphere.”
The former British and Irish Lions Test star has a long list of memories, including playing alongside All Blacks legend, Jonah Lomu on his Cardiff Blues debut in Calvisano.
Williams says European rugby has a unique feel and he is still captured by the magic of the cup after retiring.
‘Nugget’ added: “Unfortunately I think my legacy in European rugby will be the missed kick against Leicester, but I played 80-odd games in the Heineken Cup and I’ve never thought of my legacy in that way before.
“I just loved playing in those games and I have so many good memories from Europe.
“Everyone will remember that semi final and the Amlin Cup final, but there were other great days like the Pontypridd v Brive battles we had in 1996-97, beating Bath at home with Ponty and then with Cardiff going down to Biarritz.
“It was in the mud and a game that nobody else would remember apart from those who played in it. We beat them 10-6 in an absolute monsoon.
“They’re just unbelievable memories of travelling around Europe.
“We went to Calvisano with Jonah Lomu in our side, and seeing what a superstar he was.
“The crowds we had in Calvisano that day, and Italy wouldn’t normally have been a big hotbed for rugby, but to play in a team with Jonah was an incredible experience.
“You look back and I loved every minute. Even now as a non-player, when European weekends arrive it’s hard to pull yourself away from your television for 72 hours, and seeing all the games, the cultures and the different styles of games that different countries play.
“It’s an incredible competition and it was a privilege to be a part of it.”
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