Smarting of parting

Geoffrey Nicholson in Cardiff says the errors outweighed the lucid moments
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Wales may have marked their departure from the St Helens ground at Swansea in 1954 with a victory over Scotland. But their farewell match at Cardiff Arms Park - which only a bureaucrat could refer to as the National Stadium - ended in a sad and costly defeat by England, the side they most want to bring low. It is the yardstick by which they measure their progress, and yesterday they fell far short: an anti-climax to a season in which they had previously played a lot of good rugby with little reward.

The first half was not the sort of parting gift that the Arms Park deserved: a sporadic game in which the errors in tactics and execution far outnumbered the lucid moments. By half-time Neil Jenkins had left the field with a broken arm after having failed with two penalty kicks, one of them a sitter. And then the name of Christian Loader was added to Wales's bloody injury list. England, too lost their right-wing, Jon Sleightholme, and hooker Mark Regan. The continual interruptions to remove the wounded, and the spasmodic flashes of bad temper produced a ragged, disorderly game whose only virtue was its suspense.

For the Welsh supporters it mattered most that Jonathan Davies should play the conquering hero on his return. His drop-outs and distribution were as calm and elegant as ever, though the attack missed the speed and eccentricity of the absent Arwel Thomas. Davies also landed a penalty on the first-half whistle. But it was Mike Catt, with two penalties, who stole the half for England and did his best to make Rob Andrew's recall as reserve kicker unnecessary.

The swift one-two of Stimpson and Underwood in the first 10 minutes of the second half, however, took out the last saving grace for the Welsh fans - hope. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" drowned out the Welsh singing. And with a second double blow from Hill and de Glanville, the game was decided before Andrew took the field to rich applause in tribute to his past and in place of Catt who had already marked the day with 14 points.

Howley's late and ingenious try took away some of the Welsh hurt, but the scale of the defeat had to be faced, and the departure of the teams, with the retiring Davies and Carling wished all the best by the announcer, was met with an uncanny silence from the crowd.

There had been dire warnings to spectators not to help themselves to the fixtures and fittings before they left the ground. And especially not to the ground itself (what price the mystical spot where Deans didn't score for the All Blacks in 1905?). Otherwise it would be standing room only for the crowd, and a warren of divots for the players, in the two remaining matches due to be played here - a football World Cup qualifier this month, and the Welsh rugby Cup final in April.

So the Welsh fans left empty-handed - except for discarded hopes - and the English gestured a soldier's farewell to a battlefield where they have won only three times in the last three decades. They would happily return in May to swing the ball and chain for the demolition, so blighting has the Arms Park been to their hopes.

But will the make-over really happen? There is said to be a growing swell of opinion against the new pounds 14m Millennium Stadium as yet another hostage to the dodgy fortunes of the professional game. The resistance has certainly come too late to make any difference: the development contracts were signed yesterday on the morning of the match. But people aren't as rigid as reinforced concrete. Two years ago Andrew withdrew from international rugby, yet was still prepared to sit on the bench for what turned out to be a token reward of five minutes' rugby. To Andrew, Carling and Davies, if not to the Arms Park, it may not be so much Goodbye as See You Around Some Time.