Rugby Union: Cilfynydd turn clock back for Cardiff

The Arms Park rebels are paying the price for their secession in the Swalec Cup
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The Independent Online
ONE DAY it's Bath, the next Cilfynydd. "Cil who?" you can hear the Cardiff players asking as they prepare for their first game this season against Welsh opposition today.

Having scaled the heights of British rugby by beating the reigning European champions, Bath, in front of a near capacity crowd of 12,250 on Tuesday night, to move to the top of the unofficial Anglo-Welsh league, the Arms Park side will come face-to-face with the deepest roots of its domestic game when they face Division Seven East club Cilfynydd in the second round of the Swalec Cup.

It is a surreal fixture in the midst of an unreal season for rugby in Wales. Mighty Cardiff are the visitors to the former Rhondda mining village for a cup tie made possible only because the Welsh Rugby Union, in either their wisdom or their petulance, forced both Cardiff and Swansea to enter the competition two rounds earlier than would normally have been the case.

Such is the fate for seceding from the Welsh Premier Division - though not from the WRU - in order to play against England's Allied Dunbar Premiership sides. Some have seen the WRU's response as petty but when the draw was made three weeks ago neither Cilfynydd nor Amman United, at home to Swansea, were complaining.

Cardiff have played at Cilfynydd before. Nine years ago they were pleased to escape with a 26-13 victory in the cup, but if there was a big gap between the two clubs in those days, today the difference will be almost immeasurable. League rugby eventually forced Cilfynydd to the brink of bankruptcy, while professionalism has forced Cardiff's wage bill through the pounds 1m barrier - where it has stayed.

The contrast between the two teams is brought even more sharply into focus through the meeting of two former schoolboy team-mates, the Cilfynydd full-back Anthony Gough and Cardiff's Wales scrum-half and captain, Rob Howley.

Howley can expect to make in excess of pounds 100,000 a year from his contracts with club and country and various endorsements. Howley gained a BSc from Swansea University, became a rugby development officer with his first club, Bridgend, and was in the right place at the right time - and with the right talent - to make the most of it when the game embraced professionalism after the 1995 World Cup.

Gough, who won Boys' Clubs of Wales caps as an outside-half and was Howley's half-back partner in the Mid-Glamorgan Schools Under-19 side, earns about pounds 16,000 a year as a shift supervisor for Chubb Fire in nearby Maerdy. He earns nothing from playing for his village club.

"Professionalism heralded the start of our slide down the Divisions, from the old Third Division to where we are now which is basically at the bottom of the ladder," Nigel Jones, the Cilfynydd secretary, said. "We could not afford, and still cannot afford, to pay any of our players.

"Even our head coach, Steve Smith, the former Pontypridd centre, and his three assistant coaches all work on a voluntary basis without any payment. Rugby is for love up here, not for money."

Money, though, will still be very much on Jones's mind as he contemplates the possibility of Cilfynydd's biggest single pay-day of the decade - weather permitting.

As torrential rain swept across south Wales yesterday, Jones was in thoughtful mood; welcoming the rain as "a great leveller" and at the same time wishing it would go away. The club had hoped to cram possibly 3,000 fans through the turnstiles.

"It had the potential to provide us with our biggest single pay-day for years, probably since the last time Cardiff were here in the same competition back in the 1989-90 season," Jones said. "But I'm not too sure about that now, especially if this rain keeps up. There is very little covered accommodation at our ground.

"What has really disappointed me is the fact that Cardiff decided they did not want any tickets at all. When you remember they had more than 12,000 to watch them play Bath on Tuesday you would have thought they'd have taken at least a few.

"On the other hand, of course, the rain could be a blessing in disguise. It may hit the gate but a mud patch is a great leveller and might even help us to beat Cardiff. But that may be too much to hope for and I think I would prefer it if the rain stopped."