Rugby Union: Llanelli deserted by home-based support

Llanelli 17 Stade Francais 13
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PEOPLE HAVE been burned at the stake for lesser heresies, but here goes anyway: can Llanelli continue to consider itself a rugby town? If that sounds more ridiculous than wondering whether Calcutta is still noisy or the Vatican City remains a hotbed of Catholicism, the question is nevertheless entirely legitimate. The tradition-soaked Scarlets achieved one of the great results in their incomparable history at Stradey Park on Saturday, only to find that fewer than 2,000 locals could be bothered to watch them do it.

If it is possible for a simple statistic to break sporting hearts, that one does the job. Stade Francais, quite probably the most complete club side in the northern hemisphere and odds-on favourites to succeed Bath as European kingpins, should have generated a 10,000 gate.The fact that four-fifths of that potential audience stayed at home or went to the pub or spent the afternoon at Homebase not only beggared belief, but raised serious doubts over the current ability of Welsh rugby to fire the imagination of its long-suffering public.

God knows, Llanelli deserved better. Aware that defeat would effectively end their interest in the only competition worth a light to them this season - the Welsh Premiership is, after all, a joke - they dripped pride and passion and old-fashioned West Walian hwyl. So ecstatic were they at beating the French champions that no fewer than three forwards - Phil Booth, Martyn Madden and Chris Wyatt - claimed the crucial try. And who could blame them? Their illustrious predecessor, Roy Bergiers, has been dining out on his match-winning score against the All Blacks since 1972.

For what it is worth, Wyatt gets The Independent's vote; not just because he was first out of the shower to state his case - "Don't believe Madden, he's a chancer," he grinned - but because he sweated buckets for the Scarlet cause. "Chris has been one of our big performers all season, both here at home and in France," said Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli coach. "We don't have the strongest of scrums at the moment and that makes life difficult for a No 8, but he goes out there and does it for us every week."

Jenkins had one or two further points to make, however, and these were not nearly so upbeat. "Why did we get 2,000 tops for a game of this magnitude? I'll tell you why. To begin with, the whole build-up to the match was negative and yes, I'm talking about the Welsh press here. We were written off by everyone to the extent that there was no obvious point in our turning up at all. Also, I have to say that while I'm glad, absolutely delighted, for the people who came to support us, I sometimes wonder whether the town really wants this club any longer. The thought dismays me, but there it is."

At least Llanelli are playing in the European Cup, which is more than the English condescended to do. It is not the competition of old, of course; as Stuart Gallacher, the Scarlets' committed and enterprising chief executive, pointed out, Stradey might well have rediscovered its faithful had a big Anglo fish, a Bath or a Leicester, been on one side of the halfway line. But the tournament still knows how to throw up the odd epic, even if its devaluation has been of rouble-esque proportions.

The French had long since secured their place in the last eight, but they unquestionably came to win. Chivvied along by their energetic captain, Richard Pool-Jones, an England Test flanker back in the summer and an obvious bilingual asset when it came to discussing the finer points of refereeing interpretation with Ireland's Alan Lewis, they registered an early pushover try through Xavier Blond and looked ready to cut loose at the merest drop of a beret.

But they did not cut loose. Rather, they were not permitted to do so. The mini-monsoon sweeping in from the Atlantic undeniably favoured the Llanelli cause but it was the wonderful Welsh tackling rather than any meteorological intervention that won the day. The Boobyers, all three of them, gave the occasion an entire fusillade of best shots - Neil, asked to make do and mend as an emergency outside-half, played with enormous good sense as well as heart - and with Wyatt to the fore despite a retreating scrum, they frustrated their thoroughbred opponents.

Two penalties from John Williams, a rookie full-back on loan from Bath, restricted the interval deficit to four points, and within five minutes of the restart Wyatt, or whoever, turned the tables. Christophe Manas, who had a rough old time of it one way or another, made a desperate hash of a straightforward tidy-up in the left corner to concede a line-out and when Mike Voyle picked out Jason Hyatt's throw, Wyatt and company churned their way towards and, finally, over the French line.

The rest came down to Williams, who not only chipped over two more nerveless three-pointers but also joined a pumped-up Garan Evans in denying Sebastien Viars a match-winning try four minutes from time. For all we know, Williams is a world-beater in waiting, but if he achieves nothing else in this sport, he has earned himself a small place in Stradey folklore.

"It just goes to show," beamed Jenkins, a graduate of the class of '73. "Stade Francais have an annual wage bill of pounds 2.5m while we get by on pounds 450,000, but a Llanelli side can still beat anyone on home soil. That's the positive message we need to get across to the locals: that a club with this weight of tradition behind it can always spring a surprise, be it against the All Blacks or the best in Europe."

Too right. If the people of Llanelli could just drag themselves away from the telly for an afternoon, they might find the short walk to Stradey well worth the effort.

Llanelli: Try Wyatt; Penalties J Williams 4. Stade Francais: Try Blond; Conversions Dourthe; Penalties Dourthe 2.

Llanelli: J Williams; D Williams, G John, R Boobyer, G Evans; N Boobyer, R Moon; P Booth, J Hyatt, M Madden, A Copsey (capt, M Morgan 30), M Voyle, D Hodges, C Wyatt, I Boobyer.

Stade Francais: A Gomes; S Viars, R Dourthe, C Mytton, C Manas; M Guetard, L Lousteau; S Marconnet, L Pedrosa, P De Villiers (P Gimbert 55), D Auradou (D George 55), G Ross, S Keith (C Moni 55), X Blond (C Juillet 55), R Pool-Jones (capt).

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).