Rugby Union: Cardiff mastering the new order

The rugby union revolution: Welshmen make their presence felt among England's elite in the unofficial premiership
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The Independent Online
NAUGHTY BUT nice, friendly but ferocious, illegal but illuminating; the explosively controversial programme of Anglo-Welsh fixtures has been the most instructive element of the season so far. In the eight weeks since the two biggest clubs in Wales told their union where it could stick its rules and regulations, the following truths have emerged: firstly, that it is virtually impossible to prevent grown-up rugby teams from playing each other if they are determined to do so and, secondly, that an English club on a Welsh pitch equals thousands more supporters on the terraces.

But the third truth is the most striking of all. The Welsh Test team may have spent the last decade or so inventing new ways of frittering away the legacy handed down by Gareth and Barry and Merv the Swerve, but Cardiff are deep in the process of establishing themselves as the best club side in Britain. Can this be so? A bunch of Taffs, right up there alongside the Saracens, Leicesters and Baths? Yes, sirree. If a new British league or expanded Allied Dunbar Premiership goes ahead next season, expect the Arms Parkers to be pressing for the silverware.

Look at the facts. Cardiff are joint top of the unofficial premiership table with a game in hand over Bath, their co-leaders. They have put 40 points on a full-strength Saracens side, beaten a more than useful Leicester outfit at Welford Road and, most satisfyingly of all, given their crimson- tinged rivalry, brushed aside a Bath team containing 11 internationals. The West Countrymen retreated across the Severn Bridge muttering about bad refereeing and insisting that their conquerors were nothing to write home about, which was Bath-speak for: "Christ, we didn't realise they were that bloody good."

According to Mark Evans, whose reign as director of rugby at Saracens has been notable for its absence of whingeing excuses, prefers to give credit where it is so obviously due. "Cardiff? Top notch, no doubt about it," he says. "Obviously, the unofficial nature of the matches they are playing makes it difficult to gauge precisely how able they are in comparison to the big English clubs; no-one goes out to lose a rugby game in front of a 12,000 full house, but while it's the be-all-and-end-all for Cardiff, their opponents generally have league business at the backs of their minds. For all that, I do not feel the slightest reluctance in saying that if they were in the Allied Dunbar Premiership right now, they would be among a very small group of favourites for the title."

Contrary to the official Welsh Rugby Union line, Cardiff are neither inhabiting a fool's paradise nor fighting a phoney war. "Look, we're perfectly aware that our current fixture arrangements are easy to knock," says Rob Howley, the playmaker of Cardiff, captain of Wales and quite possibly the best scrum-half on the planet. "By breaking away, we gave our critics a stick to beat us with. You can hear them saying it after every game we win - 'So what? The other lot weren't trying', or 'Who cares? The English put out a second team'.

"We're not daft, you know. It's clear that something is missing, that our games do not have the competitive legitimacy of a proper Allied Dunbar or British league contest. But you play the side the opposition puts out and you play to win, simple as that. We're playing for our futures here. Every time we set foot on a rugby pitch, we're looking to secure the best possible long-term result for the club. We've been bold, we've created our own agenda. Having come this far, it would be ridiculous not to take a real pride in our performance."

According to Howley - and he should know, given his international pedigree - Cardiff have made enormous strides since their opening refusenik game at Bedford in early September. They were pretty good anyway, having reached the final of the 1996 Heineken Cup, the last four of the 1997 tournament and lost narrowly at Bath, the eventual champions, at the quarter-final stage of last season's competition. However, they have now developed a stiletto edge that sits threateningly alongside the more familiar bludgeon. With a score of full internationals on their books, not to mention this week's exciting acquisition of the former St Helens winger, Anthony Sullivan, from rugby league, they glow from every pore.

"You can never have enough strength in depth," Howley insists. "The one time this season we experimented with selection, we had our arses kicked at Sale. But then, that's the quality of the rugby, the scale of the challenge we're now encountering on a weekly basis. Believe me, I'm not being arrogant here. But I have to say that Cardiff get more out of going to Welford Road to face a Leicester side with a few top boys missing than we could possibly hope to achieve by playing some of the Welsh Premiership clubs. It's just a total buzz and to be honest, I can't see any of us wanting to turn our backs on it.

"I've never known so much enthusiasm at the Arms Park. Take a player like Jon Humphreys [the former Test hooker and captain now within striking distance of a return to the Wales front row]. He's playing out of his boots at the moment and I suspect it comes down to the fact that in recent games he's faced Richard Cockerill, Mark Regan and George Chuter, three of the top four or five hookers in England. Where else could he find regular one-on-one competition of that magnitude?"

Howley himself is on a high, much to the delight of Graham Henry, the new national coach from New Zealand who has raised one or two committee- room backs by insisting that rebel game evidence is indeed selectorially admissible. At one stage, Howley feared that the politics of the Cardiff rebellion would wreck the entire season. Two months down the road, he is enjoying the best club rugby of his career.

"We had a difficult pre-season, to say the least; no one knew what the hell was happening, to the extent that we reached the last week of August before the Bedford game was given a definite go-ahead. Once we started playing, though, the fever gripped us.

"If we hadn't started well, if we'd been turned over by Bedford and then let Saracens push us around in front of a big home crowd, we'd have struggled to justify a place in whatever new competition emerges from the talks currently in session. That's what I mean by playing for our futures. All we can do in this situation is earn the respect of every side we come up against. If we do that, we'll earn their support, too."

This weekend, London Irish visit the Arms Park. They can expect no mercy. "Last season, we could afford to identify a few quiet Saturdays, the odd game off," Howley says. "There is now no such thing as a game off; relax too much in one of these matches and you lose. And in our situation, losing is not something we can contemplate."