Cardiff raise game, not expectations

Home comfort an incentive for Joubert's depleted squad
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Cardiff accepted the first winners' laurels of this season's Heineken Cup at the Arms Park on Friday night, but it would take a brave person or a fool to predict whether the club will return for the final, next door at the Millennium Stadium, a mere eight months down the line.

Bravery there was aplenty, in as much as Cardiff's injury-ravaged squad turned in a thoroughly commendable performance of bite and boisterousness to subdue the last-but-one European champions, Northampton. Foolhardiness was scarcer on the ground.

For the first time anyone can remember, Cardiff's chairman and biggest single shareholder, Peter Thomas, has elected not to say his club will conquer the continent. Far from it. Even after watching his side, shorn of 11 players and with no bench cover for the back five positions, kick off with a victory, Thomas stuck to his prediction that no team from Wales had the set-up to take the trophy next May.

Instead of contemplating the finishing tape, Cardiff barely made it to the start line, after a punishing schedule of seven Celtic League matches in five weeks. The glut of injuries has forced Cardiff's South African coach, Rudy Joubert, into using more of his front-line players than he might have anticipated. The hectic build-up backs up Thomas's belief that Wales's Heineken Cup challenge is fatally flawed. Yet, from the thick of the fray, there came a different verdict, albeit one based on pride as much as hard evidence.

On a night of Lions reunions – the coach Graham Henry's first sight of his poison-pen scrum-half, Matt Dawson, was one example – Rob Howley reproduced the form that made him Henry's choice in the No 9 jersey down under in the summer. "It's a big statement to say no Welsh club can win it," said Howley, one of three Cardiff try-scorers in the 25-17 win. "We're hell-bent on proving we can do well. But I can understand that; for people outside the team, it's difficult to see us doing it. The side is in a transitional period."

Perhaps Thomas, stung in the past, is dabbling in reverse psychology. Spencer John, Cardiff's durable loosehead prop, admitted that Europe had focused the players' minds in the last week. "It's given us the lift we needed," John said. "You often hear that we're not a close-knit club, but the squad is a happy one. We're working for each other."

John Steele, Northampton's director of rugby, described how his pack were "strangled up front" for the first hour of the match. Those who recall Cardiff's abject surrender in last season's quarter-final at Gloucester would be pleased to hear such words. And a gate of more than 10,000 on Friday, despite live television coverage in Wales, confirmed there remain plenty of disciples willing to follow the cause.

Among the converts was Iestyn Harris, a rare visitor thus far after his transfer from rugby league but set to be unleashed in the blue-and-black next month. "I was impressed by what I saw," Harris said, "particularly when you know how many players were missing." The former Leeds Rhino is set to take his European bow in the third round of matches, against Glasgow, on 27 October, although in which position remains a matter for conjecture.

Joubert turned down a Super 12 contract in his homeland next year to take on a fire-fighting job with Cardiff of Red Adair proportions. "We haven't had the same side together for two games in a row," he said. "But it doesn't matter what problems come our way, we can handle it. The players have shown a hell of a lot of guts and commitment."

Neil Jenkins, the Heineken Cup's record points scorer, has not even been registered for the pool stage because he is unlikely to be fit before January. Four missed kicks against Northampton by the 19-year-old stand-in, Nick Robinson, suggested how costly Jenkins' knee injury might be. Gradually, though, the queue outside Cardiff's treatment room is shortening. Two back-row players, Dan McShane and Emyr Lewis, could be available for next weekend's second pool match, at Montferrand, the scene of Cardiff's heaviest European defeat, 46-13 two seasons ago.

A clue to Joubert's upbeat approach – and that of his team – came in his summation of the week ahead. "The first thing is to get all the bruises out. As for Montferrand, I've heard it's a great pitch, with a great atmosphere. We've got to use that to our advantage."

Even a European novice like Joubert knows that home wins are top of the agenda in the Heineken Cup. Cardiff, with only three Arms Park defeats of any variety in the last four years, continue to score heavily in that department. They have never failed to reach the knockout stages in Europe, and a final played on the green, green grass of home is a massive incentive to keep the run going.