Welsh rugby’s European “Top 10” has just expanded to 11 following Saracens’ epic fight back to topple Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final.
Liam Williams shone in his alternative red kit as the English champions came from 10 points down to score 20 unanswered ones of their own to win the title for the third time in four years.
The 20-10 victory in Newcastle means Williams becomes the 11th Welsh player to win Europe’s top tournament – although no Welsh team has lifted the trophy.
Sarries’ triumph also puts the Wales full-back on course to become the first Welsh player to lift the ultimate Triple Crown of Grand Slam Six Nations winner, European Cup winner and domestic title winner.
His club are into the Gallagher Premiership play-offs and are favourites to win the title.
Alex Goode may have been voted European Player of the Year, and Brad Barritt quite rightly picked up the Man of the Match award, but Saracens’ sole Welshman made a massive contribution to their success yesterday.
Playing on the wing he was defensively superb, always threatening in attack and, as ever, aerially brilliant. Mark McCall, the director of rugby at Saracens, targeted Williams last summer and knew he would add some ‘X-Factor’ to his already world class team.
He has done that in spades all season and he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best players in the northern hemisphere at St James’ Park.
His tackle and jackal in the seventh minute of the second half, when he treated Leinster’s Irish centre Garry Ringrose like a rag doll, was a key moment in the game and had the commentators, pundits, fans and his team mates in raptures.
“That is an absolutely majestic piece of defending!”
Liam Williams with a HUGE tackle and turnover for Saracens!
How?! 😱 pic.twitter.com/4hKe4q57Xn
— Watch the Champions Cup final live on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) May 11, 2019
Brian O’Driscoll called it “an absolutely majestic piece of defending” and the commentary from Nick Mullins and Ben Kay summed up perfectly the astonishment at what the Welshman had done in not only stopping the try, but then getting the ball back for his side.
“That had to be a try . . . that was brilliant defensive work by Williams . . . and he’s stolen the ball as well . . . what a tackle and turn-over . . . everybody in the ground was thinking Leinster had to score . . . the one person who wasn’t was Liam Williams “
As he went up onto the podium to receive his winners’ medal, Williams joined a special list of Welsh players who have won the ultimate title in European club rugby.
It all began with Tony Rees in the Brive side of 1997 and the Sarries star became the 11th winner.
1997: Tony Rees (Brive)
1998: Ieuan Evans, Nathan Thomas, Richard Webster (Bath)
2000: Allan Bateman, Andy Newman (Northampton Saints)
2004: Rob Howley (Wasps)
2005: Gareth Thomas (Toulouse)
2013: Gethin Jenkins (Toulon)
2015: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon)
It has been an incredible season for Williams. His Heineken Champions Cup win came on the back of helping Wales to win the Triple Crown and Grand Slam. This was his 21st game of the season for club and country and he has won 20 of them.
It’s not going to stop there, either. Saracens are still in the hunt for the Gallagher Premiership title they wrestled back from Exeter Chiefs last season. The goal is to complete the European and domestic club double for the second time.
A Champions Cup final that will live long in the memory 🙌
Saracens produced a magnificent display to come from behind and defeat Leinster at St James’ Park…
Relive an intense and dramatic contest in 60 seconds 👊 pic.twitter.com/1QIXCE0r0q
— Watch the Champions Cup final live on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) May 12, 2019
You wouldn’t bet against them.
The defeat for Leinster also means Wales will have just one team in the Champions Cup next season.
That place will be decided by the play-off between the Ospreys and the Scarlets at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday, May 18 (7.45pm).
Had Leinster won, then an extra place may have opened up for the Guinness Pro14, depending on other results in the closing stages of both the English and French domestic seasons.
That place could have been taken by Cardiff Blues, with the Ospreys going directly into the tournament and the play-off taking place between the Blues and the Scarlets.
But Saracens’ win means the Blues will again play in the European Challenge Cup next season.