Rugby Union: Cardiff's followers vote with their feet

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Cardiff 40 Saracens 19

JUST WHEN you hoped the talking heads of British rugby union might finally apply a few sticks of dynamite to the more bunged-up areas of the game's constipated body politic, they gave us another working party instead. Oh well. Perhaps this latest collection of unfashionable winter blazers will be the ones to break with cherished tradition and take the blindingly obvious as a starting point for their negotiations.

The solution to so many domestic ills was writ large in every corner of Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday as 10,021 spectators - precisely 1,821 more than attended the previous week's entire Welsh Premiership programme - filed into the famous old ground to give succour to the local refuseniks in their trial of strength with authority.

"The public have voted with their feet and they've made the strongest possible statement to the Welsh Rugby Union," pronounced Gareth Davies, a very bullish Cardiff chief executive. "They want a British league, as do we all. I can only hope and pray that this occasion will accelerate the process."

Knowing the mindset currently in vogue amongst the game's governing classes, the success of Saturday's rebel venture will probably delay any agreement indefinitely. Childishly pathetic as it may sound, a respected full- time employee of the WRU was privately advised to steer clear of the Arms Park for fear of upsetting his superiors, while one Welsh committee wallah openly professed disgust at the decision of Graham Henry, the new pounds 250,000- a-year national coach, to run an educated eye over Rob Howley, Leigh Davies and company as they pitted their wits against the knock-out champions of England.

To his eternal credit, Henry was having none of that nonsense. The mega- salaried saviour from All Black country booked himself a prime seat in the main stand and watched Cardiff inflict all manner of indignities on a Saracens outfit as close to full strength as made no difference.

No sooner had the final whistle blown than he was off down the M4 to watch Neath's officially sanctioned fixture with Bridgend, which was rather like taking in a Chas and Dave singalong after spending the afternoon in the company of the Three Tenors. Some you win, some you suffer.

Henry could hardly have failed to take encouragement from the first part of his unevenly balanced double-header. Always a cussed outfit when the force is with them, Cardiff withstood some slick first-half assaults from the supremely dangerous Alain Penaud to reach the interval intact and then used the wind with sufficient intelligence to kill the game stone dead after the break. They were horribly outscrummaged, but their Little and Large loose-forward combination of Gregori Kacala and Dan Baugh cleaned up so efficiently that Howley was given all the space he craved and then some.

Full of snap and imagination at scrum-half, the Welsh captain bagged an opening try on 54 minutes by getting a hand to Gavin Johnson's clearance before claiming the ball from the resulting breakdown and taking the route one angle to the right corner.

Subsequent scores from Matthew Wintle and Simon Hill, the first of them impeccable in design and execution, added further shine to the 25 points registered by the right boot of Lee Jarvis. "Basically, we had our arses kicked," admitted Mark Evans, the Saracens director of rugby.

But - and here's the real question - were Sarries up for it? Did the Londoners take one look at the enormous Kacala and say "Bugger this for a day out, we've got a Premiership match next week"? Not according to the backroom staff, they didn't.

"Motivation and desire are not precise sciences, so you can't do any more than train as you would for any game, prepare with your customary intensity in the 24 hours before the match and then go out there and commit yourselves physically," Evans said. "Believe me, it wasn't part of our plan to come down here and ship 40 points. We're bitterly disappointed."

His views were largely vindicated by the vigour of his side's approach in the early stages. They might have had the game topped and tailed by the break had Penaud capitalised on his own slithering genius late in the half, but after ghosting away from Jarvis on the Cardiff 22 the Frenchman found himself clattered by Liam Botham as he stretched for the line.

Botham collected a dislocated finger for his trouble and so extreme was his reaction to the pain that you could almost hear his celebrated father muttering something along the lines of "bloody pansy", but in the context of the match Beefy Jnr could legitimately claim heroic status.

In the eyes of Davies and his hard-pressed commercial staff, however, the real heroes were to be found in the stands and on the terraces. "How many supporters did Saracens bring down? Fifty? Sixty? That means we had very nearly 10,000 people from Wales in the ground and that is a big step forward," said the former international stand-off.

"When we played Bath in the Heineken Cup quarter-final here two seasons ago, we pulled in a 13,800 sell-out gate, but Bath brought 5,000 with them that day. Imagine what we could do with a British league where the big English teams were playing for points as well as principle.

"Had we decided to bow down to the WRU and play in their Premiership again this season, we wouldn't be here at all this time next year. Fact.

"Our backers will support us as long as there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but they won't support mediocrity. I'm not at all convinced that there is a genuine will to set up a British league with the right degree of club influence in its organisation and administration; in fact, this working party business smells of a political sop, another stalling exercise. But we live in hope. This, at least, was a special day."

Cardiff: Tries Howley, Wintle, Hill; Conversions Jarvis 2; Penalties Jarvis 6; Drop goal Jarvis. Saracens: Try Daniel; Conversion Johnson; Penalties Johnson 4.

Cardiff: J Thomas; L Botham, L Davies, M Wintle, S Hill; L Jarvis, R Howley (capt); A Lewis, J Humphreys, S John (L Mustoe, 46), K Stewart, J Tait (D Jones, 75), O Williams, G Kacala, D Baugh.

Saracens: G Johnson; M Singer, R Constable, J Thomson, B Daniel; A Penaud, K Bracken (M Powell, 71); R Grau (A Olver, 79), G Chuter, P Wallace, C Yandell (B Cole, 76), D Grewcock, T Coker, A Diprose (capt), R Hill.

Referee: A Ware (Pontypridd).