CARDIFF, by losing to Swansea in the Cup semi-final a week ago and yesterday going down to Newport, their greatest rivals, in this ultimate league match, may have ended on a low note, but they can look back with some pride on a season where they have not only set the pace to win the first division of the Heineken League for the first time, but have also won it handsomely by scoring 81 tries.
The club members would surely have preferred that Cardiff had fielded their top team, in order to win the title and to climax the season in some style. But Alex Evans, their Australian guru who has taken them from rags to riches in three years, is nothing if not a pragmatist, and he rested 10 of the 11 Cardiff players in the Welsh World Cup squad which he also coaches.
Consequently Cardiff struggled as Newport, obviously mad keen to win this great local derby, spoilt the party with Kevin Moseley helping to wipe out Cardiff at the line-outs and their forwards bustling the over- anxious young Cardiff pups into making error after error.
Newport began purposefully as sustained pressure brought them two penalty goals in the first 10 minutes. But midway through the half Steve Ford, the only World Cup player selected (though Mike Hall came on as a late substitute), restored Cardiff's credibility with his 39th try of the season, only one short of Ieuan Evan's Heineken League record and two short of Bleddyn Williams's 47-year-old Cardiff record for a season.
Newport, however, struck back instantly when a good bounce from a kick ahead brought a try by winger Richard Rees, converted by Martin Jones, who also kicked a penalty to give Newport a half-time lead of 16-7.
After the interval, Cardiff pulled themselves together with the old hands, particularly Owen Williams and Mike Budd, leading the way.
Two penalty goals by Chris John for ruck infringements steadied their nerves, but another penalty for Jones put Cardiff again on to the back foot.
Cardiff began desperate long-range running attacks and in a tempestuous finish, Mike Budd scored what seemed the winning try, but Newport's Richard Rees crossed the try-line with a minute to go and Cardiff were undone.
Cardiff: C John; S Ford, C Laity, G John, J Westwood; S Davies, A Booth; A Lewis, H Bevan (capt), P Sedgemore, J Wakeford, H Stone, V Davies, O Williams, M Budd.
Newport: Martin Jones; I Jeffreys, D Hughes; M Llewellyn, R Rees; D Rees, M Roderick; S Duggan, A Peacock, S Cronk, N Jones, K Moseley, B Atkins, A Carter, R Goodey (capt).
Referee: A Ware (WRU) Pontypridd