Rugby Union: All set for battle of the titans

Cardiff and Bath renew hostilities in the European Cup today. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
It might have been organised by Don King. Two battle-scarred warriors, seated at the same long table but separated by a respectable distance, were weighing up the prospects for their latest confrontation in time-honoured style, their words laced with fighting hyperbole.

"We respect them, but we certainly don't hold them in awe," Terry Holmes said.

"We've been saying we're the best in Europe for years, so it's time to put up or shut up," John Hall said.

Given that neither man is actually participating in this afternoon's eagerly awaited Heineken European Cup quarter-final between Cardiff and Bath at the Arms Park - Holmes now coaches the all-international Welsh outfit while Hall is director of rugby with the English champions - heaven only knows what the players will say about the game once they slam the doors of their respective dressing-rooms and get down to brass tacks. The ballyhoo has been building all week and just for once, every last ounce of it has carried its own justification.

The two clubs have been taking pot-shots at each other since 1924, but the real rivalry began a little over a decade ago when Welshmen poured over the Severn Bridge in their thousands for a Wednesday night fixture at the Recreation Ground. In an age of club friendlies - there were no domestic leagues in 1985, let alone any authoritative Continental competition - the game somehow took the mantle of a mini-international and matched expectations so completely that it is still recalled whenever rugby is discussed in either city.

With around 12,000 sardined into the arena - the official head count of 9,000 was aimed more at the taxman than anyone else - Bath won a gladiatorial encounter 16-13, scoring three tries to one. The best of them fell to Hall, careering over the line with sundry Welshmen hanging from his jersey, while Holmes, who had been responsible for Cardiff's lone strike, might have snatched victory at the death but for a crooked feed to a five-metre scrum.

"Don't remind me," said the legendary scrum-half, whose rich experience with Wales and the Lions has never been able to blur the sharp images he retained from that defeat on the banks of the Avon. "I can remember pretty much everything about the game, which was a truly tremendous contest.

"Bath were just on the rise at that point after years of playing second fiddle to their neighbours, Bristol and Gloucester, and I suppose there was a best-of-Britain feel to the occasion. Certainly, there was a fantastic edge to the atmosphere.

"I think we can expect a similar atmosphere for this game, for I'm sure it will live up to its billing.

"This is a huge challenge for us. Bath have been so successful over the last few years that you have to put them right up there with the likes of Toulouse in terms of quality and achievement. But to succeed at this level you have to meet and beat the best.

"Both sides have outstanding players at their disposal, so it will all boil down to which players deliver when it's most needed."

Rather like Holmes, who ended his single Lions Test appearance against New Zealand in Christchurch in 1983 with his right knee in pieces, Hall suffered so badly from similar injuries that his international career left him short-changed in terms of fulfilment of potential. As a result, his commitment to Bath's assault on club rugby's holy trinity of titles - the Courage League, the Pilkington Cup and, most importantly, the Heineken Cup - is intensely personal.

"I failed to manage a single victory in Cardiff as a player," he said during a visit to the Arms Park this week. "It wasn't for the want of trying. I finished on the losing side four, perhaps five times here.

"It was always a huge game in the days before the national leagues were set up and for some reason or other, we never seemed able to squeeze out a result, no matter how strong a side we sent over the bridge."

In fact, Bath have won only once in Cardiff in 72 years. Having avoided defeat for the first time by drawing 10-10 in 1990, they went one better the following year by inching home 10-9 in a game notable for the fact that Gareth Chilcott, the redoubtable West Country prop, failed to notice the sending-off of Ben Clarke and spent the rest of the afternoon berating his absent team-mate for his lack of effort in the scrums.

"Ever since the draw paired the two clubs together, people have been saying that it's all about England versus Wales," said Hall, delving deep into the Bill Shankly book of sporting exaggeration. "As far as I'm concerned, it's far more important than that. This is about Bath and Cardiff."

Just like the late, great man of Liverpool, he meant every word.