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This Week 18 Years Ago, Tim Stimpson Kicked Welsh Rugby In The Guts . . . But His Big Regret? . . . He’s Not Welsh

It was the kick that broke 10,000 Scarlet hearts. Tim Stimpson looked an unlikely assassin, but 18 years ago a blend of deviousness, dedication and technique denied Welsh rugby a team in the final of Europe’s showpiece, as the former England full-back recounts to Graham Thomas.

Tim Stimpson tells the story with the practised air of a confident and experienced after-dinner speaker.

In a classic match played 18 years ago this week, there were two minutes left between Leicester and Llanelli in a tension-wrapped Heineken Cup semi-final at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground.

The Scarlets led 12-10 but suddenly gave away one of those difficult-to-call penalties at a scrum when prop Martyn Madden was judged to have collapsed his side of the bind, 58 metres from his own side’s posts.

Well, it was 58 metres by the time Stimpson – the Tigers and England full-back of some repute as a goalkicker – crouched over the tee.

“I was a bit wary of the distance, anyway, and when the ref gave me the ball he seemed to march me backwards,” recalls Stimpson.

“So, I was a little nervous and I asked for a glass of water. A water boy went off to fetch one and, out of all decency, I stepped fowards to receive it.

“Then, the ball boy with the kicking tee came on. And again, out of all courtesy, I stepped forward a yard to meet him – just so that he didn’t need to walk so far.

“Finally, I bent down to line up the ball on the tee with the posts, and again, purely inadvertently, I may have moved forward a few centimetres.

“Well, that’s the story I tell, anyway,” he adds.

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On examining the video footage, the truth is more prosaic, but no less impressive. As soon as the referee, Ireland’s David McHugh, awards the penalty, the wily Austin Healey collects the ball and walks through the penalty mark by at least a yard-and-a-half before tossing the ball to his teammate.

Stimpson then strolls another yard or so, before pointing the ball towards the posts in a gesture to McHugh that he intends to kick at goal. A further few inches are reeled in when he accepts the tee and bends to begin his set-up.

And as everyone with an ounce of rugby nous at that time knew, if you gave streetwise, gnarled and callused old Leicester an inch, they always took a mile.

The ball is struck well, and hits a point on the crossbar a foot or so from the upright. It ricochets against the post and spins wildly, high into the air, before falling, devastatingly, for a second time, just beyond the crossbar as Scarlets forwards hold their heads in their hands.

Stimpson – now a 46-year-old director of the Green Business Company, a construction firm who specialise in sustainable developments – concedes his version goes down well when told in clubhouses across the Midlands.

It even gets laughs, he says, when he tells it in rugby clubs in south west Wales.

But, back to the truth. Like everything Leicester did in their era of dominance, Stimpson’s preparation for that semi-final was ultra-professional, obsessively thorough, and involved a flexible interpretation of the regulations.

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Football clubs then – and still now – have strict rules about allowing hairy rugby players onto their manicured surfaces, even just to practise their kicking.

Stimpson – who would end up in a nervy kicking duel with Stephen Jones – drove from Leicester to Nottingham three times earlier that week, with a bag of balls in the back of his car.

“I think we had a word with the Nottingham Forest groundsman, slipped him a bag of Maltesers, or something, and he let me practise my kicking in a stadium that was unfamiliar.

“That’s the strange world of an obsessive goalkicker. You spend a lot of time examining how deep a dead ball area is and how much the wind swirls in the corners. At Nottingham Forest that day, there was almost no wind in the middle of the park, but it was really swirling in the corners.

“But I had tested myself in different parts of the stadium already and I knew where my limits were. That penalty in the game itself was right on the very edge of my limit.

“Martin Johnson looked at me and I nodded which meant it was within my range. If, I’d been wrong, there’s no doubt he would have murdered me.”

When the time came, then, Stimpson knew it would be touch and go. He went through his usual routines – imagining Rob Andrew’s face was on the side he was about to boot – and visualising his kick travelling along a line of string.

“I always put Rob’s face on the ball, because he taught me about discipline – trusting your technique because it’s like a golf swing and if you swing too hard then you’ll end up hooking it.

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“I made great contact, but eventually the wind swirling from the corners eventually hit the ball and the kick lost momentum. At that point, I was very worried and very, very disappointed. I thought I’d undercooked it.

“To this day, I still don’t know how a ball can hit the crossbar, hit the post, and then go over. But it did and I felt very relieved to have won the game, rather than have lost it.”

The kick was a vicious thwack in the nuts for the Scarlets as it was the third time in four seasons that a late kick had denied them in Europe.

A team that revolved around Jones and the talents of Scott Quinnell – that included Robin McBryde, John Davies, Chris Wyatt and Simon Easterby in the pack, plus Mark Jones, Neil Boobyer, Leigh Davies and Salesi Finau behind – were left broken-hearted and that side never did fulfil their ambition of a European final.

Stimpson, though, for all his success in England with Leicester – they had won the 2001 Heineken Cup final against Stade Francais and would go on to beat Munster after squeezing past Llanelli in 2002 – admits a jealousy of the Scarlets and of Welsh rugby in general.

“I always loved the way the Welsh teams played and the way they used the ball. I wished I’d have played for a Welsh team because as a full-back I might even have been used properly.

“To play in a team that had proper outside-halves who could pass accurately, and more than five yards, and miss out centres and hit full-backs on the charge – I sometimes think I’d have had a great career if I’d been Welsh.


“I played in a Leicester side where if I passed the ball to a forward in training and they dropped it, Dean Richards used to bawl at me, ‘What are you doing passing to a forward? They can’t catch!’”

Deprived of playing for a Welsh club side, or even Wales, Stimpson had to make do with all his domestic and European titles with Leicester, 19 caps for England and a place on the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa, where he was the leading points scorer.

His Lions experience, was, he says, the best of his career and from seeing Rob Howley at close quarters and at his peak on that trip, he rates the former Wales scrum-half as one of the very best he ever played with.

With the current lockdown placing a threat against so much in the future, Stimpson is anxious that the Lions are not squeezed from any re-arranged calendar – especially as he was planning a return trip to South Africa next summer, 24 years after his own as a player.

“Of all the jerseys I wore on a rugby field, the Lions was the one that meant the most to me.

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“The first thing that will guide whether or not next year’s tour goes ahead will be health. It will be the situation in that country regarding the virus and the effect of having thousands of fans travelling around South Africa.

“But the financial situation with regard to the countries here is also very worrying if they have not had the income from the scheduled Test matches.

“If companies start to ask for their money back because seasons have not been completed, then some sporting bodies are going to go under.

“The Lions is a huge thing for rugby in this country and overseas and there are big parallels between 2021 and 1997, because it’s South Africa and they are world champions.

“The tour could potentially be put back a year, but that would have knock-on effects. It’s very worrying and I just hope that we can get back to playing some kind of rugby as soon as it’s safe to do so.”


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