All quiet on the Welsh front

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The Independent Online
At Least someone on the other side of the Channel has a sense of humour. Unhappy with their very public accommodation at the Marriott Hotel in Cardiff, the Brive squad, already pared down to a minimum for security reasons, booked into a different hotel. Their secret alternative: The Friendly Hotel in Tongwynlais.

The past two weeks have been no laughing matter for either club. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Battle of Brive - as T-shirts on sale in Pontypridd yesterday predictably dubbed the mayhem two weeks before - both clubs stood accused of something far more grievous than mere bodily harm. One of the unwritten rules of the game is that feuds on the field are forgotten on the threshold of the bar. The infringement of that basic tenet had cost them dear, at the bank and, more importantly for Cenydd Thomas, the chief executive of Pontypridd, in the more precious currency of integrity.

Thomas, a former superintendent in the South Wales constabulary, has been attached to Ponty man and boy for the past 40 years and if his references to the French as "not far short of psychos" did little to further strained relations between Ponty and the reigning Heineken European Cup champions, his sadness at the harm to his beloved club has been genuine. "The club is big enough and lovable enough to get straight back to what we do best," he said. "Playing a beautiful game at a beautiful club."

Lovable rogues perhaps, Ponty have always embodied the more homely virtues of Welsh rugby. As befits a club developed in the lee of the NUM area office and the methodist church, their rugby has been uncompromising, their hospitality robust. The past two weeks have cut the club to the quick, led a few to question their love of the game and, as Thomas wrote in the programme, focused the eyes of the rugby world on to the neat hill-ringed ground at Sardis Road. Murmurs of justification have not strayed too far outside the valleys. A body count of 3-0 after the Battle of Brive II said all that needed to be said about the goodies and the baddies in non-Celtic minds.

Yesterday, injured innocence rather than outright hostility filled the air. Both teams wore black and white, but such was the gentility, black tie and tails might have been better dress. Ponty was divided. The occupants of the main stand were determined to forgive and forget, to remind their accusers of proper rugby decorum. The applause which greeted Brive's warm- up was as watery as the sun, but it was an improvement of the coin throwing and spitting which is the normal welcome in the French hillsides.

The more popular side vented their wrath mainly on Christophe Lamaison, one of those cited in the dispatches from the French front. Philippe Carbonneau, the chief protagonist in the Bar Toulzac, was absent; Dale McIntosh, one of the two sent off that day, suspended. Phil John, also detained for questioning by the French police overnight, took his place in the middle of the Ponty front row, a special cheer greeting his trundle on to the field. Lamaison replied eloquently enough, converting eight penalties.

The fierce reminders in the dressing rooms beforehand had clearly hit their mark. Brive's kick-offs invariably nestled in the arms of Neil Jenkins, the first set-piece since the bar-room brawl was tame and barely a hand or a boot was raised in anger all afternoon. As far as they could, the two teams played at arm's length. It was rugby as it should be played. By late in the first half, even the vocal element had turned their ire on the more traditional villain, the referee, Gordon Black, who kept an admirably tight grip on the areas of flashpoint.

In the dying minutes, Ponty pressed, Brive defended desperately. A draw left points shared and honour satisfied. There was no fraternisation at the end and Brive refused to share the showers with their hosts. "We cannot forget the events of two weeks ago," Lamaison said. The bridges tentatively rebuilt the previous night by a Ponty delegation of peace to the Brive HQ survived the critical test. Brive might yet make the Friendly Hotel their permanent home in Wales.