Rugby Union: Pontypridd assure Brive of warm welcome to Wales

The top brass of Pontypridd mounted a charm offensive of sorts yesterday, assuring the Frenchmen of Brive that this weekend's Heineken Cup match at Sardis Road would be a "true rugby occasion" at which they would be welcomed. Chris Hewett hears a plea for
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It was the bodyguard business that really flummoxed Cenydd Thomas. As if Pontypridd's genial chief executive did not have enough problems on his plate in smoothing the path for Saturday's renewal of rugby hostilities with Brive, he had just been informed of the French side's threat to fly in their own security men.

"Bodyguards? What's going on here?" a flabbergasted Thomas asked yesterday. "Why would they need their own bodyguards? What's more, what are these bodyguards planning to bring with them? Knuckle-dusters? Knives? Handguns? It's ridiculous, completely over the top. If French security men try to come into the ground on Saturday, they'll be searched."

The sporting earthquake set rumbling by the outbreaks of violence during and after Ponty's match in Brive 11 days ago continue to register on rugby's equivalent of the Richter Scale. On Tuesday, the clubs were fined pounds 30,000 apiece - half of it suspended - by the tournament directors and told to get on with Saturday's return. The Welshmen were none too happy at the size of that penalty but swallowed it with gritted teeth. Their opponents, meanwhile, finally overcame their reservations about visiting the Sardis Road bear pit and agreed to turn up, although their president, Patrick Sebastien, said he would resign at the end of the season in protest at the board's failure to discipline Ponty more heavily.

"We're looking forward to Saturday," Thomas said. "To have moved the game to a neutral venue, as was suggested in some quarters, would have been the most unjust punishment of all because our supporters want the chance to come along and get behind us. They'll do it with passion but they won't be hostile or abusive. All visitors from Brive, be they players or supporters, can rest assured they will be treated well. Rugby will be the winner."

Having heard the Ponty hordes described as "semi-civilised animals" by Laurent Seigne, the Brive coach, Thomas did his level best to temper his response. "We have deliberately not allowed ourselves to be dragged into an insult-swapping scenario; we have not uttered a single word that could be interpreted as an insult to anyone from Brive." Finally, though, he dropped his guard. "Semi-civilised? At least we've reached that stage. I don't know what category it leaves him in."

Pontypridd officials have met with the local constabulary to discuss a "realistic and sensible" level of policing and stewarding for Saturday's match. Thomas said he would also contact his opposite number in Brive as a matter of urgency to extend the hand of friendship and guarantee the Frenchmen a safe and enjoyable, if not successful, weekend in the heartland of Welsh rugby. That the match will be a sell-out is a certainty and that should help Ponty survive the serious dent in their bank balance caused by their unprecedented financial penalty. "We've already suffered financial punishment because of this episode - we were forced to rearrange our flights back home from Brive and that doubled our travelling expenses - but we'll find the money somehow," Thomas said. "Mind you, we'll also be keeping a very close eye on future disciplinary activity."

And with good reason. By insisting that the on-field violence alone could be taken into account - French police are still investigating the apres- match shenanigans - the directors are hostages to fortune. If every mass punchup carries a pounds 30,000 penalty, we could soon see more clubs in the bankruptcy court than on the playing field.