Rugby Union: Cardiff count cost of rebellion

Tim Glover discovers the giants have been rudely cut down to size

BENEATH AN image of the formidable Wales prop David Young, the campaign poster's message was "Rebels with a Cause". Not any longer. Cardiff's exile from the Welsh Rugby Union, potentially the most damaging split since the formation of rugby league, has run its course, but the fall- out has left the club in disarray.

In the end it came down to one match, the Welsh Cup semi-final against Llanelli at the Brewery Field last weekend. Gareth Davies, Cardiff's chief executive, described the 39-10 defeat as: "The worst performance by a Cardiff side I have ever seen... a very unprofessional display, ill-disciplined and with a low skill level." The consensus was that Cardiff couldn't organise a pass in a brewery.

In June, Davies will leave the club to become chairman of the Sports Council of Wales. He is not the only one heading for the exit. At least 12 players, mostly internationals, will be released and they have already been preceded by the head coach, Terry Holmes. On Thursday, the former Wales scrum-half said: "I'm not going to quit. I have another year left on my contract and I intend to see it through. I have total confidence in my ability." On Friday, the club announced his departure and yesterday Lyn Howells, the Pontypridd and Wales assistant coach, was unveiled as his successor.

Not everybody shared Holmes' confidence, not after the debacle against Llanelli. In a season of acidity, this was Cardiff's acid test, their only chance to win a trophy and prove a point. It was the rebels' last stand and they were routed by the Scarlet unionists.

"Considering the circumstances, it all backfired on us," Peter Manning, the team manager, said. Cardiff and Swansea infuriated the WRU and the eight survivors of the sponsorless Premier League by joining the English Premiership, in which they played friendlies. It was, perhaps, the worst of an Anglo-Welsh compromise.

Cardiff and Swansea felt that the Welsh Premier League was claustrophobic, insular and weak (they thought much the same about the WRU) and that by playing with the more glamorous, powerful and upwardly mobile English clubs, they would raise their game to the professional level to which they aspired. They're still laughing about it at Stradey Park.

Against Llanelli, Cardiff - they are sponsored by Brains, the local brewery - were brainless and spiritless. "Cardiff have forgotten about the ferocity of Welsh rugby," Robin McBryde, the Llanelli captain, claimed. Holmes thought his side had a raw deal from everybody, including the referee. "A point which struck me was the amount of bitterness against Cardiff," he said, naively.

At the beginning it was a different story. Cardiff's first Anglo-Welsh friendly, against Saracens at the Arms Park, drew 10,000 to watch a 40- 19 victory. Cardiff continued to beat the best of the English and the Western Mail enjoyed publishing a Premiership "table" that showed the two rebels at or near the top. Last Wednesday fewer than 2,000 saw Cardiff put 50 points on London Irish. Yesterday they saw another low-key affair against London Scottish, all tickets being reduced to pounds 5.

The commitment from England's Premiership clubs was that, whenever possible, they would field their strongest sides against Cardiff and Swansea and, initially, this was the case but even then, who can say whether mentally they were at their strongest? "We wanted to show that the so-called friendlies had honed us to beat anyone in the land," David Young, the Cardiff captain, said, post-Llanelli. "We were gutted, every single one of us."

In their heyday Cardiff were the Manchester United of club rugby and when the multi- millionaire Peter Thomas took control a couple of years ago the plan was dominance in Europe. Cardiff built up a squad containing 20 internationals (the one they could not get was Gregor Townsend), not enhancing their popularity with a spot of cherry picking. So how has it all gone, in the words of Manning, pear-shaped?

When Graham Henry took over as Wales coach he found the WRU had put many players under contract, a move designed to prevent them joining English clubs. Henry changed all that and Cardiff were left with a lot of players who suddenly found their incomes halved. Holmes admits this has led to "disenchantment". Peter Thomas was so disenchanted last week he went off to Portugal to play golf.

Mike Hall, the former Wales and Cardiff captain, is one player who will not have his contract renewed next season. He has been at the club for 10 years, captaining them to cup and league success. "I put heart and soul into it," Hall said, "and this is a very disappointing end. I haven't heard a word from anybody." Jon Humphreys, another former captain, will also be out of contract. He and Hall were due to have a testimonial match next month but it's been cancelled for lack of a suitable date.

"It's been a difficult time on and off the field," said another player. "There have been contract disputes but the management has also taken its eye off the ball. Some directors are more concerned about car park spaces and their seat in the directors' box. In their fight with the WRU some people have been on an ego trip." Even Robert Howley, the Wales scrum- half, does not escape criticism. "In his approach to training you get the impression," said another, "that he is more interested in playing for Wales than Cardiff."

In the subdued clubhouse last week, the walls adorned with portraits of some of the greatest names the game, let alone Cardiff, has ever seen, Bleddyn Williams - "the prince of centres" 50 years ago - defended his corner against an aficionado who said that Cardiff had no divine right to play in Europe. "Bullshit," replied Bleddyn, pointing out that, in a crunch match in January, Cardiff had hammered Swansea.

Unless there is a last-minute hitch, Cardiff and Swansea will not only return to the Welsh Premier Division but will get two of Wales' five places in the European Cup. Assuming Llanelli and Pontypridd also get in, it means that either Ebbw Vale or Neath, both in the top four, will find their union loyalty has counted for nothing.

"It's been interesting," Gareth Davies said of his five-year rule. "It's not been quite the fun we thought it would be, but it's been a great experience." Davies will continue to watch Cardiff, on the terraces with his daughter and paying, as he did even when he was chief executive, at the turnstiles.

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