Rugby Union: Howley turns the tide

Jonathan Davies sees Cardiff win 40-19 in the battle of the Welsh rebels
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The Independent Online
YOU wouldn't believe it from the final scoreline but with 10 minutes to go Swansea looked as if they were going to snatch this match out of Cardiff's grasp. Then Robert Howley produced a touch of the magic with which he dominated the game and Cardiff recovered to score the two late tries which make their victory look so handsome.

It was the sort of exciting rugby that gives rebellion a good name. The coaches might have winced at some of the slapdash play but the spectators couldn't afford to blink in case they missed another twist in the fast and unpredictable action.

I didn't keep count of the number of turnovers but the game was packed with them and it was the speed with which they caused the ebbs and flows that brought endless excitement. If so much sparkling play in the winter sunshine was a surprise so was the temper of a meeting that has a history of rugged and often violent play. There was hardly a fight in sight despite the unremitting tempo - even the two sets of replacements had a game of touch rugby together during the interval.

Swansea tried to play with the style that had served them so well recently but this time they had to try to play behind the advantage line because the man they usually rely on to get them over it was absent. Scott Gibbs watched the game with me and he fretted over his absence as much as his team did.

Without him the Swansea backs lacked direction and leadership, and they put themselves under pressure through dropping passes. The first two Cardiff tries came through Swansea surrendering the ball. The first followed a forward drive under the Cardiff posts which looked as if it must lead to a Swansea score. Suddenly Steve Moore stole the ball and it was whipped out to Anthony Sullivan, who slipped a tackle from his cousin Mark Robinson to complete a 60-yard flying run that finished with a score under the posts.

The second Cardiff try came after Swansea lost the ball in midfield. Simon Hill should have scored but he was caught by Colin Charvis, who conceded a line-out in the process. Then Howley looped a pass out to Hill who, having failed twice to run the ball over the line, crawled it over.

Even in a first half that ended 21-6 in Cardiff's favour, Swansea had the upper hand in the set pieces, especially the line-outs. They won four off Cardiff's throw and also took a scrum against the head, but they kept losing the momentum because their backs were at a loss tactically.

Cardiff's forwards, on the other hand, made up for their lack of success in the line-out by being far better in the loose and the service they gave their backs in the rucks and mauls was much better and quicker. With Howley in great form, that proved to be Cardiff's strength in the end, but they had some serious scares in the process.

Swansea's second-half showing was tactically sounder because they used the strength of centre Clinton van Rensburg to punch holes through a Cardiff defence that sometimes looked vulnerable. Swansea's support work on these occasions was lacking but at least gave the Swansea forwards the targets they needed.

The winger Richard Reece, who should have scored in the first half when he dropped the ball over the line, made amends when he took advantage of a great break and lovely pass from Van Rensburg to score with Sullivan trying in vain to tap his ankles.

Two Arwel Thomas penalties took the score to 28-19 and Swansea looked more than capable of overtaking their panicking opponents but then Howley took a hand. He had already made a great break which led to a penalty try after Van Rensburg tapped his ankles but another scintillating break from the base of the scrum saw him virtually settle the match. It led to a sequence of Cardiff scrums and line-outs near the Swansea line that resulted first in a Matthew Wintle try and then Steve Moore finally tearing the heart out of Swansea's comeback by putting the finishing touches to a driving maul.

Cardiff: C Morgan; S Hill, M Hall, M Wintle, A Sullivan (L Botham, 62); L Jarvis, R Howley; S John (A Lewis, 66), D Geraghty, D Young (L Mustoe, 64), S Moore, D Jones (K Stewart, 66), O Williams, G Kacala, P Wheeler (J Tate, 59).

Swansea: M Back (D Weatherly, 58); R Rees, M Taylor, C van Rensburg, M Robinson; A Thomas, R Jones; C Loader (C Anthony, 44), G Jenkins (C Wells, 73), B Evans, P Arnold, A Moore (P Moriarty, 51), C Charvis, L Jones, D Thomas (A Lawson, 73).

Referee: F Howard (Liverpool)