Cardiff plays host to vision of a European future

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

Rugby union's European Cup will improve with the passage of time - as well as with English participation, though the curmudgeonly Rugby Football Union scarcely deserves it to be so - but for now a Cardiff v Stade Toulousain final at a well-populated Arms Park is as good as anyone could have wished.

As a prototype, the fragmented progress made by clubs from Wales, France, Italy and Romania and provinces from Ireland in pursuit of the Heineken Cup has been a riposte to the doom-mongers, mainly at Twickenham, who scorned it.

Last Saturday's semi-finals in Dublin and Toulouse confirmed Leicester, Bath and others in their view that they should be taking part this season rather than next. Brian Campsall, the Yorkshireman who refereed the Leinster- Cardiff match, helpfully suggested that it was played a yard faster than anything he handles on an average weekend.

This gives a solid basis to the hope - as yet it can be no more - that the European Cup will help elevate the standards of European rugby, especially once the English clubs and, assuming the Scottish RU has its way, Scottish districts enter next autumn. In fact tomorrow's final, taken with the matches that have preceded it, is a triumph for those who were determined to press ahead with or without the RFU.

That said, the luck has been on their side. One can imagine what the attendance would have been if Leinster, Ireland's champion province, had prevailed against Cardiff and, though the Welsh 's projection of a 25,000 crowd should be believed only when that number are inside the ground, the fact that they can talk in such terms indicates the level of interest in Wales.

The WRU supports its figure by reporting that it sold 7,000 tickets on Wednesday, the first day they were on sale - despite the advance of the kick-off time to 1.30, which however inconvenient for the public is perfectly convenient for ITV schedulers. Television, lest we forget, calls the tune.

Toulouse's 30-3 destruction of Swansea compared favourably with Cardiff's 23-14 win in Dublin but, with tomorrow's weather certain to be akin to Lansdowne Road rather than the Sept-Deniers and the antagonists wholly unfamiliar with each other, the outcome is gloriously imponderable.

Cardiff are relying on the French being poor travellers, though this is based on their perception of the national team more than anything they know of Toulouse, whose captain, the nonpareil wing Emile Ntamack, regards this match as more important than winning his own championship. Certainly when it comes to pedigree Toulouse's is every bit as illustrious as Cardiff's: French champions 12 times, including in 1995 and '94.

Nor do the Welsh champions boast their opponents' flamboyance - which means the gargantuan Cardiff pack, including seven internationals, will be the preferred weapon. For the bludgeon to defeat the rapier will also depend pivotally on Adrian Davies who, with Neil Jenkins injured, can reclaim the outside-half place in the Wales team to play Italy to be announced next week.

Cardiff: M Rayer; S Ford, M Hall, M Ring, S Hill; A Davies, A Moore; A Lewis, J Humphreys, L Mustoe, J Wakeford, D Jones, E Lewis, H Taylor (capt), O Williams.

Toulouse: S Ougier; E Ntamack (capt), T Castaignede, P Carbonneau, D Berty; C Deylaud, J Cazalbou; C Califano, P Soula, C Portolan, H Miorin, F Belot, H Manent, S Dispagne, D Lacroix.

Referee: D McHugh (Douglas, Co Cork).

Comments