Rugby Union: Peace at Ponty as devilry takes a day off
Pontypridd 29 Brive 29
The driver of the Brive team bus bore little or no resemblance to Jacques Villeneuve or Michael Schumacher, but he obviously possessed something of their technique. Once the last visiting Frenchman had climbed aboard, the vehicle fairly exploded away from the grid at Sardis Road, hung a sharp left down the hill and hit the M4 as though it were negotiating a particularly rapid stretch of the Nurburgring on a fresh set of slicks.
Cenydd Thomas shrugged his careworn shoulders, blew out his cheeks and smiled, a touch sadly. "That's that, then," said Pontypridd's cordial chief executive. "They could have stayed for a beer had they wanted to, but they didn't. They wouldn't even shower with the Ponty boys. Our lads were a bit put out about that, but I told them straight. `If they want the showers to themselves, let it go. It's not worth ruining the day for'."
Indeed not. After the violent hors d'oeuvre at the Parc Municipal des Sports and the tumultuous main course in Le Bar Toulzac, no one needed a fight over first use of the communal soap-on-a-rope for dessert. It would have been too much to stomach, even for those who like their rugger red-blooded and rare.
There was an undeniable sense of lingering hangover about the occasion. The massed ranks of Ponty faithful on the terraces made their presence felt by booing every last Christophe Lamaison goalkick to the rafters, but they were wasting their breath; the tricolore marksman slotted eight penalties from eight without batting an eyelid and was only a fag paper wide with his touchline conversion of Laurent Travers' second-half try. There was also a determined rendering of Welsh standards from a nine-piece brass band camped in the clubhouse corner, but when they tried to lift the local spirits with a blast of "Land of My Fathers", they managed to make it sound like the "Last Post".
And on the field, the ferocious combatants of a fortnight ago engaged in a phoney war, tip-toeing over the eggshells with all the balanced precision of Olga Korbut on a narrower-than-usual beam. Sure, there was some thunderous action in the second half, but the only incident that remotely tested the patience of Gordon Black, the Irish referee, was an outburst of lip from a frustrated Neil Jenkins. There were skills and spills and a grandstand finish to enthrall a bristling full house, but the most essential ingredient of all was conspicuous by its absence. There was not an ounce of devil about the contest.
Perhaps that was just as well, given the eagle-eyed presence of a delegation of Heineken Cup directors in the stand. It is most unlikely that the two sides will be thrown together for a third time in this season's competition and although L'affaire Toulzac remains the subject of an inquiry by the French police, there should be no earthly reason why the rest of the tournament should not proceed with all due vim and vigour. It would be a travesty if the knock-out stages were neutered by the fear of swingeing financial penalties for the least misdemeanour.
Brive have now dropped three pool points, which is three more than they dropped last season en route to the title. But they still have the stamp of champions about them, especially when Lamaison, Lisandro Arbizu and Alain Penaud produce kicking performances that would satisfy the Gods. Their forwards are every bit as accomplished and if there is a more effective prop forward than Didier Casadei currently plying his trade in European rugby, he must be sharing a flat with Lord Lucan.
A week previously, the French pack had suffered all manner of indignities at Bath. On Saturday, Laurent Seigne and his selectors restored Casadei, Eric Allegret and the magnificent Olivier Magne to life at the sharp end and as a result, Ponty were blown clean out of the Rhondda at scrum, line- out, ruck and maul. Yet the Welshmen proved sufficiently adept at creating silk purses from sows' ears that they pilfered a draw, thereby keeping alive their hopes of a last eight place.
For that, they could thank a fast and wonderfully opportunistic set of outside backs. Gareth Wyatt, Dafydd James and Geraint Lewis all conjured tries out of little or nothing and had the slippery Wyatt not been the subject of a desperate double-handed mugging by Arbizu and Sebastien Viars when a metre short just five minutes from time, a famous victory would have been assured.
"A lot of silly things have been said about us over the last fortnight," Dennis John, the Ponty coach, said. "But I don't concern myself with what others say, to be frank. They don't come down here day in, day out and see what we're doing, what we're trying to achieve. If they did, they would have to accept that we're capable of playing in top company. Brive did their homework on us and made us struggle up front, but the other side of the coin shows we've just beaten the European champions 3-1 in tries. We'll keep working and we'll keep improving."
So will Brive, though, and that is by far the more daunting prospect. Their defence needs toughening up - Richard Crespy's missed tackle on Steele Lewis resulted in Wyatt's try, the entire back division was guilty of a collective snore-in when James bludgeoned over in the same right corner and David Venditti spilled the ball to give Geraint Lewis his 70- metre run-in - but when the artists out wide and the artisans in the bump-and-grind hit a simultaneous stride, they will take an awful lot of stopping.
Honours even, then. Brive won the first match, Ponty very definitely won the fight and the second game finished all square. At the end of a fortnight very short on poetry, poetic justice was as much as anyone could hope for.
Pontypridd: Tries Wyatt, James, G Lewis. Conversion Jenkins. Penalties Jenkins 4. Brive: Try Travers. Penalties Lamaison 8.
Pontypridd: K Morgan; G Wyatt, D James, S Lewis, G Lewis; N Jenkins (capt), Paul John; N Eynon, Phil John (J Evans, 74), M Griffiths, G Prosser, S Roy, M Spiller, M Lloyd (P Thomas, 66), M Williams.
Brive: C Lamaison; S Viars, D Venditti, L Arbizu, J Carrat; A Penaud (capt), S Bonnet; D Casadei, L Travers, R Crespy (D Laperne, 55), Y Manhes (P Lubungu, 59), E Allegret, L van der Linden, R Sonnes (F Duboisset, 64), O Magne.
Referee: G Black (Ireland).
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