The 2002-03 European Shield was the inaugural edition of a new, innovative, knockout-only competition for third-tier teams across Europe. It would have only two further editions before reverting to the pool and knockout format of the European Challenge Cup in 2005.
For Caerphilly RFC, 25 May will mark the fourteenth anniversary of the moment the club concluded its greatest touring adventure to date. Nobody could possibly have foreseen the brave conquest on which the ‘Cheesemen’ were about to embark when Caerphilly touched down in Veneto for the first leg of the first round.
The Welsh representatives would face Rovigo – and lose narrowly. Matteo Mazzantini was the more obvious star of the show, scoring two tries and a conversion. However, the battling display that gave Rovigo a famous win over Caerphilly was enabled in no small part by Andrea Scanavacca. The fly-half capped a stunning display, in which he landed four successful penalties, by scoring a conversion that swung the match decisively in his side’s favour.
The final score was 26-22, giving Caerphilly an uphill battle in the return leg.
The ‘Cheesemen’ need not have worried; they crushed the opposition 58-17. Their subsequent reward was a meeting with another Italian side, Parma, in the quarterfinals. Certainly, had special offers and 100% deposit bonuses, such as those offered by new betting sites, been widely available fifteen years ago, then that result would have seen a number of bookmakers enjoying a field day.
Over in France, it was only by a very fine margin that Caerphilly’s final opposition, Castres Olympique, even managed to survive the first stage. The draw had pitted them against fellow French side Grenoble, and when Castres managed to win their first leg match, with home advantage, by just a single point, doubts about Castres’ abilities began to surface.
The second leg, in Grenoble, was another hard-fought affair. Castres won 31-30, to set up a quarter-final meet with Dinamo Bucharest. In the first leg of said quarter-final, Castres were the home side and destroyed the opposition 123-0, even though the visitors contained the likes of Florin Tasca. Similar high scoring performances would be a recurring theme for Castres throughout the tournament
With home advantage in the first leg on this occasion, Caerphilly dispatched Parma 41-28. The manner in which Caerphilly overturned a 25-13 half-time deficit was an early suggestion that they could go all the way. For Caerphilly, Taufahema Taunaholo was a true wing commander in the second half, scoring three tries to give his team the perfect preparation for what promised to be a tough away leg.
Learning the lessons from a horrific first half in the home leg, it was with a staunch defensive performance that Caerphilly stemmed the inevitable Parma onslaught in northern Italy. The margin of defeat for Caerphilly, just 15-10. was enough to secure a semi-final berth with Petarca Padova.
Curiously, it was in the away leg of their semi-final with Padova that Caerphilly truly thrived. This time, it was fly-half Justin Thomas who came to the fore, scoring a hat-trick of penalties in the first half to keep Padova’s halftime lead at just a single point. Three tries, from Geraint Lewis, Andrew Williams and Thomas himself, turned the game on its head.
It was a remarkable performance which rendered Caerphilly’s narrow defeat in the second leg meaningless.
And so, on the 25 May 2003, Caerphilly faced Castres in a winner-takes-all clash at the Madejski Stadium. Sadly, it was an anti-climactic result. Castres were easy 40-12 winners, with Romain Teulet in unstoppable form, scoring three penalties and three conversions. In reality, Caerphilly’s chances of ultimate glory had always been remote – but for Caerphilly FC and its followers, the memories will last a lifetime.