Raugby Union Commentary: Ford just makes it to the line on time

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The Independent Online
WE ARE at that time of year again, and whether or not the Divisional Championship really is a pre-Christmas present it is about time we got on and considered the future of our club rugby.

When I say 'our' I mean British club rugby in general, Anglo- Welsh in particular. There is nothing much wrong, is there, with the Courage Championship and the Heineken League - not when you can pack in 14,000 people and generate pounds 25,000 receipts at the Arms Park, where Steve Ford's injury-time try gave Cardiff an 8-6 win over Swansea.

This was a stirring ending to a disappointing affair scarcely worthy of the protagonists' second and first places. Swansea remain leaders, contrary to various Saturday night reports, by virtue of having one more try than Cardiff. Lousy match but great occasion . . . only Heineken can do this?

Perhaps. There is satisfaction bordering on smugness in England as well as Wales that leagues are so unequivocally successful that we can now sit back and, therefore, stand still. Yet ever since the earliest days of, first, Courage and then Heineken anyone who was anyone has agreed that the logical and desirable extension was an Anglo-Welsh championship.

There are difficulties, the main one being sheer inertia caused by relief in both countries that leagues are up and running at all, let alone successful. Everyone seems to like the idea of, say, Cardiff v Bath for some future title; no one is actually doing anything about it.

And no one shows any sign of doing so, though Mike James, the Swansea chairman, told a radio audience after Saturday's match that in the medium term (about five years) an Anglo-Welsh competition was not only attractive but essential. The more so for the Welsh than the English, since the deleterious introspection of the Welsh has been one of the prime causes of rugby recession since the 1970s.

Thank heavens a man of authority and influence is thinking about it, and I can report that in England, too, the subject is not being left unaddressed. The chairman of the Rugby Football Union's competitions' committee has constructed a feasible means of convergence.

John Jeavons-Fellows was at Sudbury to see the Midlands lose to London but saw from last night's Rugby Special television coverage of Cardiff v Swansea the extraordinary passion - the sheer meaningfulness - of big league rugby. 'Once the Welsh had leagues and a genuine meritocracy we in effect had two feeder nations,' he said.

'The simplistic answer is that we take four from the Heineken and five from the Courage, the disparity simply reflecting the larger numbers in England. This would mean 16 fixtures, a reduction in both England and Wales and therefore helpful to both in the international context.

'The flaw is that in order to maintain the Anglo-Welsh balance it would have to be agreed that, no matter where they finished, the bottom Welsh and bottom English clubs would have to be relegated each season, otherwise it could end up with nine English or nine Welsh. But even so it would be a formidable competition.'

Jeavons-Fellows is by no means starry-eyed about this, identifying the size and quality of some English grounds, the joint administration of the league, elitism and the effects on sponsorship lower down the leagues as further areas of concern. 'But you can always get over problems if you really want to,' he added.

'The loss of meaningful Anglo- Welsh rugby has been possibly the worst effect of leagues and if you are introverted you always lose. Personally I would favour a move along these lines. It's a natural move forward, and if you don't go forward you will surely go backward because you never stand still.'

It remains to be seen if there are other men of vision. Cardiff and Swansea needed no other stimulus than each other on Saturday but the prospect of both being thrown in with the Baths, Leicesters and Harlequins is boundlessly appealing - excruciatingly so given its remote likelihood.

Wales's top two more or less cancelled each other out in a game of ferocious defence, heroic cover-tackling and no continuity. The new laws become an impossibility - 'ridiculous', said the Cardiff captain, Mike Hall - if rucks and mauls are not given time to develop and in their dejection Swansea felt that Robert Yeman's premature whistling critically denied them in this area.

The game was also bogged down by the abject ball-retention of both teams, exacerbated by the way they sought midfield contact rather than getting the ball wide. To make the point Nigel Walker, the former Olympic hurdler, did not receive a worthwhile pass until 25 minutes of the second half had elapsed.

In such circumstances, it was idle to expect tries. Adrian Davies's penalty for Cardiff was followed by two by Aled Williams which were about to extend the champions' winning First Division sequence to 12 matches until Ford's rapturously greeted try.

Davies had just missed a penalty to tie the scores, a draw which Hall would have gratefully accepted. Indeed, before the fateful final scrum the captain instructed Davies to drop a goal but changed his mind at Mark Ring's insistence. It worked a treat: Davies's initial pass missed Ring, Hall made ground and when the ball fell loose Davies hacked through and, though he overran it, behind him Ford won the pursuit.

Delirium at the last gasp. For Ford, a former Wales wing, it had been a week of heart-warming renewal. Three months ago his six- month-old son died and he dropped out of rugby for a while; last week, his partner gave birth to a daughter. Which puts even the euphoria of this Cardiff win into its proper perspective.

Cardiff: Try Ford; Penalty Davies. Swansea: Penalties Williams 2.

Cardiff: M Rayer; S Ford, M Hall (capt), M Ring, N Walker; A Davies, A Moore (A Booth, 18); M Griffiths, J Humphreys, P Sedgemore, P Kawulok, S Roy, H Taylor, O Williams, M Budd.

Swansea: J Ball; M Titley, K Hopkins, S Gibbs, S Davies; A Williams, R Jones; K Colclough, G Jenkins, A Metcalfe, R Moriarty, P Arnold, A Reynolds, S Davies (capt), R Webster.

Referee: R Yeman (Port Talbot).

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