Critical day in title race enlivened by bonus-points system

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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

The bizarre nature of Welsh rugby's bonus-points system may have created a multiplicity of unfairnesses, but it is undeniably bringing the Heineken League, the last to be sponsored by the brewing company, to a thrilling conclusion.

Neath, Cardiff, Llanelli and Pontypridd lead the table, in that order, and with Llanelli playing Pontypridd at Stradey Park this afternoon in a repeat of last Saturday's cup semi-final won by Ponty, this is as critical a day as the First Division has seen this season.

Neath have a big advantage in tries but, given the irresistible way Cardiff have been playing, the champions' game in hand ought, in theory, to be more than enough to make up their two-point deficit. Today they face Newbridge at the Arms Park while the leaders go to Swansea, whose challenge has disintegrated. "Swansea are a team who can win or lose by 50 points," Lyn Jones, the Neath coach, said. Latterly it has been the latter.

Cardiff's uninhibited rugby has produced huge wins since Easter at Aberavon and Swansea, both of which produced the requisite three bonus points for seven tries. "The 10 points we've picked up in the last two matches have put us in the driving seat," Alun Donovan, one of Cardiff's coaches, said.

"We've put ourselves back in contention with two matches we had to win and we'll be trying to keep it the same against Newbridge, with explosive rugby up front and the backs running in the tries."

Though Llanelli are third, they more or less discount their chances; hardly the frame of mind in which to take on Pontypridd after last week's cup drubbing though a place in Europe is a new priority even for those whose title aspirations are dead.

There is more to come. The league season - extended to the middle of May to cater for midwinter postponements - will not reach its dramatic climax until Pontypridd play Cardiff on 10 May followed by Neath v Pontypridd and Cardiff v Llanelli on 14 May, so whatever happens today will be merely a step along the road.

n The Pan Pacific series that was supposed to be the salvation of Pacific island rugby, and specifically of Western Samoa's place among the leading rugby nations, is being replaced by a four-nation series that does not include Argentina, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, after the collapse of funding for the original event.

The Pacific Rim championship will begin with the United States v Canada in San Francisco and Japan v Hong Kong in Tokyo on 11 May. It is now intended to extend the competition to the planned eight teams next year.

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