When it comes to looking back over Welsh rugby highlights in Europe’s top tier competition, there are no images that include a trophy lift. But S4C have picked the Scarlets’ magnificent victory in France 14 years as one that’s worth celebrating. Likewise, with Cardiff Blues’ dramatic near miss against Leicester Tigers in 2009 and the Blues’ triumph in the final of the European Challenge Cup a year later as Graham Thomas recalls.
Paul Moriarty ranks the day the Scarlets ransacked the rugby powerhouse of Toulouse as among his greatest memories.
The former Wales flanker – who finished third at the World Cup as a player, was a dual code international and has coached in both codes – was on the touchline in Phil Davies’s coaching team when the Scarlets went to France in 2006.
The match is one of three classic European ties being re-assessed on S4C on Saturday evening in Clasuron Cwpan Ewrop.
Nobody used to win in Toulouse. They were champions of Europe the year before (2005) and in 2003 and were runners-up in 2004.
But nobody told the Scarlets they were not supposed to stun the regulars who flocked to the Stade Ernest Wallon. Or if they did, the Scarlets players weren’t listening.
Their 41-34 victory stands the test of time as not only one of the most thrilling comeback triumphs in the history of European rugby, but one of the most impressive one-off achievements of any Welsh team on foreign fields.
Twice, the Scarlets trailed by 21 points – towards the end of the first half and again at the start of the second.
Moriarty – father of current Wales star Ross Moriarty – recalls: “At half-time everybody thought we were going to lose by a big score.
“But we had come from behind to pip them at Stradey in the home tie and Toulouse felt we couldn’t raise our game again.
“Maybe they underestimated us. But once we were level with them I knew we could win because I saw their heads drop.
“They were a fabulous team with some superb players, but we suspected they were fragile and when we tested them they couldn’t cope with the pressure.”
This was a Toulouse team of all the talents. They had renowned French forwards of the quality of Yannick Bru, Fabien Pelous and Thierry Dusatoir, plus rapiers in their back line such as Clement Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans.
If they needed reinforcements, when things got a little spicey, on from the bench came Irish hard man Trevor Brennan.
But their lead was reeled in and eventually they were surpassed by the sparking brilliance of a Scarlets team with Barry Davies, Dafydd James and Regan King in their prime, marshalled by Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones at half-back, with Matthew Rees, Scott MacLeod and Alix Popham providing the power up front.
The other two matches that feature both involve Cardiff Blues – showcasing their greatest triumph and their biggest disappointment.
In 2009, a Blues team that was perhaps their best ever, stormed through their Heineken Cup qualifying pool with six straight victories. They overcame Toulouse in the quarter-final and were up against a fading force in the Tigers in the semi-final.
But they failed to nail their opportunities at the Millennium Stadium and finished level at 26-26, both at full-time and after a scoreless extra period.
So, it came down to rugby’s first major penalty shoot-out to decide the finalists.
Tom James missed a kick that would have taken the Blues through and it’s hardly a spoiler alert to mention that the spectacle did not end well for Martyn Williams.
The recently appointed Wales team manager recalls: “Obviously, I was disappointed with the missed kick but we were equally disappointed because we really thought it was going to be our year.
“As far as I can recollect, we hadn’t talked about it [a shootout] in the week, or prepared for it. It was a bit chaotic because none of us knew what was next.
“When I look back, missing the kick was a big thing but Leicester were a very streetwise team and I don’t think we played as well as we could have in that semi-final. That’s the most frustrating thing.”
If that was the low, then a year later there was the high-water mark when the Blues beat Toulon 28-21 in Marseille to win the European Challenge Cup.
Again, it required another impassioned comeback as the Blues came from 13-6 down at half-time to become the first Welsh club to lift a European trophy.
Toulon had Sonny Bill Williams and Jonny Wilkinson, but the Blues had their own international flavour with New Zealanders Xavier Rush, Ben Blair and Casey Laulala.
They were also packed with Welsh internationals, including captain Gethin Jenkins, who within a couple of years would spend a season with Toulon.
“We had a pocket of fans in the corner and there were 50,000 people there supporting Toulon,” says Jenkins.
“All the odds were against us and no-one expected us to win except ourselves. But we came back strongly that day and the subs we brought on did a great job. That was one of Warby (Sam Warburton)’s first games; he came on and did really well.”
S4C, Saturday 5.45pm -Clasuron Cwpan Ewrop
Gareth Roberts relives three unforgettable matches in the Heineken Cup and the European Challenge Cup.