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Rugby let down Martyn Williams 13 years ago today – Mark Orders

It is a cruel lie to suggest that those manning the Mir space station were amazed to see a ball fly past at the speed of light some time in 1990.

But Chris Waddle’s penalty for England against West Germany in the football World Cup semi-final that year — wasn’t great, was it?

For those who missed it, the ball screeched high over the bar during a game-deciding shoot-out, spelling the end of England’s hopes.

Some have long bemoaned penalties as a means of of deciding a match.

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Writing in The Times, Simon Barnes suggested: “Penalties are not football. They are not even, as television people keep telling us, great drama.

“They are cheap melodrama.”

That is exactly what they are.

Waddle was a classy winger who made life hell for full-backs across Europe with his skilful and clever play. But when asked what they remember most about him, many will recall the night he blazed that spot kick high into the night sky in Turin.

Just as Roberto Baggio was marked for the rest of his career after missing the decisive penalty for Italy against Brazil during a shootout in the 1994 World Cup final.

But at least kicking a ball is within the skill-set of footballers, or should be, anyway.

Cut to rugby in the year 2009 when the players of Cardiff Blues and Leicester Tigers were invited to take penalties to settle a Heineken Cup semi-final that had ended at 26-26 after extra time.

The match had been a mini-classic, deserving to be remembered for the Blues fightback that had seen them square matters after trailing 26-12.

But the two sides still couldn’t be separated after additional time had been played and so rugby plunged into territory many had hitherto assumed was the preserve of the round-ball game.

It was hideous to watch, let alone be part of. The Blues had a chance to win it at 4-3 but Tom James hooked his kick wide to the right. So it went to sudden death and forwards being dragged into a contest that had been reduced to the realm of farce.



Martyn Williams after missing a penalty in the shoot-out that settled the Heineken Cup semi-final between Cardiff Blues and Leicester in 2009

History tells us that Martyn Williams, one of the game’s most popular players, missed and the former West Bromwich Albion Under-14s goalkeeper Jordan Crane landed his kick: exit Cardiff Blues in the most unsatisfactory way imaginable.

Most felt only pity for Williams.

And many deplored the way the game had been decided.

But not all.

One southern hemisphere commentator wrote: “The shoot-out system tests the nerves of the players by taking them into an area of play most of them have never been. And it tests the nerves of the spectators.

“It is incredibly exciting theatre, and a fitting way to decide a match that has not been resolved with 80 minutes of ordinary time play, followed by 20 minutes of extra time.

“Wouldn’t it be memorable if a Rugby World Cup final were ever decided this way.”

Well, no, actually.

The system used that day was a ghastly way to determine a winner, bluntly copying football and with dubious justification for doing so.

Why penalties? It seemed arbitrary at the time, and a decade of reflection has done nothing to change that view. Why hadn’t Leigh Halfpenny, Richie Rees, Ben Blair and the rest of the Blues backs been thrown into a line-out competition against their Leicester counterparts, with the first to claim a steal winning the day?

Nonsense, of course, but not much more nonsensical than what unfolded that day at the Millennium Stadium.

It exposed the great openside Williams to an ordeal for which he hadn’t trained and didn’t have the skills. He could snaffle ball wondrously at breakdowns and was blessed with a sixth sense that allowed him to anticipate what would happen on a rugby pitch before some of his opponents had even thought about it. But kick goals? That wasn’t him.

Usually helpful and approachable, he cut a sad figure as he left the stadium that evening, mobile phone glued to his left ear, not looking up when asked for a comment by journalists.

Far from it being a fitting way to decide a match, the exercise had been utterly demeaning, with Williams the fall-guy in a high-stakes competition beyond his skill-set and that of many of his team-mates.

“Short of asking a cat to bark, it is hard to imagine anything more preposterous,” summed up The Independent.

No arguments there. Rugby let Williams down all those years ago. It really did.

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