Joubert singed by Celtic fringe

Cardiff 3 Connacht 6
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The Independent Online

Welcome to the Celtic League, the latest competition designed to counter English dominance. Nice try, or at least it would have been had either side managed to score one.

Yesterday Cardiff and their new coach, Rudy Joubert, got off to a disastrous start, losing a foul match on a foul day by two penalties to one. Given that Connacht are the weakest of Ireland's four provinces, this was a famous result for a side who were expertly marshalled by Eric Elwood.

"England have always got the numbers and that's the biggest weakness for Scotland, Ireland and Wales,'' Ian McGeegechan, the Scotland coach, said. "The only way to address it is by coming together.''

The Welsh-Scottish league has been whisked into a Gaelic copy with the addition of the Irish provinces. Munster, Ulster and Leinster all won on Friday night although the results were more interesting than expected. Edinburgh went beyond the fringe against Munster before going down 22-25 while Ulster saw off Swansea, the Welsh-Scottish League champions, 30-13 in Belfast. And the Arms Park yesterday produced the biggest upset of the lot. Cardiff, even without their injured Lions and a raft of other players, were expected to be too sharp and too strong. A local bookmaker could only tempt bets on Connacht by offering them with a 23-point lead. To say the Irish were overjoyed is an understatement.

The two biggest tasks now facing Joubert are to convert Cardiff, a club with a canteen of silver spoons but no bottle, into reliable contenders and to find a suitable position for Iestyn Harris, their expensive convert from Leeds. Newport, incidentally, appear to have run into problems over their signing of the Spingbok scrum-half Joost van der Westhuisen. Darren Edwards left Newport at the end of the season to join London Irish, but the Black and Ambers want him back, indicating that the deal with the South African is far from complete.

The same could be said of the Celtic League. It has no sponsor and no qualification for the Heineken Cup, and the fact that matches between the Welsh clubs counts for both the Celtic and the Welsh-Scottish Leagues is a public relations nightmare. As indeed was the first half of this match. The most that could be said for it is it was ultra-competitive, which means there was a lot of fighting. From the first minute the forwards were at it and after Elwood had responded to an early Nick Robinson penalty, the front rows were punching the Celtic daylights out of each other.

The two scrum-halves, Ryan Powell and Chris Keane, went at it like a couple of bantamweights and were shown yellow cards in the 37th minute. A few minutes later, they were joined in the sin-bin by Dan McFarland for putting the boot in at a tackle.

In the second half, Cardiff, whose lineout was a shambles, attempted to beef up the pack with the introduction of two internationals, Craig Quinell and Peter Rogers, but it was Connacht who took the three league points when Elwood kicked a second penalty in the 55th minute. Joubert had declared Cardiff's pre-season training camp in the south of France a great success, conducted in glorious weather to boot. Yesterday, in pouring rain which suited Elwood and Connacht down to the ground, the Welsh aristocrats were all at sea.

There was a surreal air to the whole experience, particularly when a beautiful rendition of the Welsh national anthem wafted over the sparsely attended ground. It came not from the disillusioned crowd but from a very loud recording at the adjacent Millennium Stadium where it is played to visitors taken on a tour of the National Arena. It had no effect on Cardiff who went from bad to worse. The heavy rain made running rugby extremely difficult, but even so Cardiff's handling and passing was atrocious.

Not that Connacht was much better but at least in Elwood they had a player with the experience to handle almost anything. In the second row they also had in Mark McConnell and Rowan Frost, a line-out combination that completely overshadowed the opposition. Last season, Connacht had a wretched Heineken Cup campaign but here they deserved their most notable victory since joining the Irish championship in 1947.

Aside from a couple of runs from their New Zealand wing Craig Hudson, an enormous figure on the right flank, Cardiff produced nothing of substance and were comfortably contained by an inspired Connacht defence. Joubert, not to mention Harris who joins Cardiff early next month, might be wondering what sort of league they have committed themselves to.

Cardiff 3 Connacht 6

Pen: Robinson, Pens: Elwood 2

Half-time: 3-3 Attendance: 4,000

Cardiff: R Williams; C Hudson, J Robinson, M Allen, P Jones; N Robinson, R Powell; S John (P Rogers, 50), G Woods, G Powell (K Fourie, 50), A Jones (C Quinnell, 50), J Tait (capt), R Appleyard, M Griffin, R Sowden-Taylor.

Connacht: G Duffy; W Munn (E Redean, 35), D Yapp, T Allnutt, P Duignan; E Elwood, C Keane; D McFarland, M Uijs, P Bracken, R Frost (D Browne, 70), M McConnell (capt), M Swift, D Dillon, P Neville (C Rigney, 64).

Referee: R Dickson (Scotland).

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