A historic Welsh Varsity encounter in front of a boisterous crowd at the Principality Stadium saw victory for Swansea University women’s rugby team, by 18 points to 5, followed by a battling 35-15 defeat for the men. It was the climax of a week of hard-fought sporting competitions between Swansea and Cardiff, Wales’ two leading universities.
Historic? Certainly. For starters, this year marked the twenty-first Welsh Varsity competition. And my oh my, Varsity, how you’ve grown! From very modest beginnings, it has now blossomed into one of the great sporting events of the Welsh calendar. No longer just rugby, it includes over 30 sports and 1000 competitors, from lacrosse to canoe polo.
Picture: pioneers and champions. The victorious Swansea women's team, after winning the first ever women's rugby game to be staged at the Principality Stadium, greatest rugby arena in the world
The results of the competitions across the sports determine which university wins the Varsity Shield. This year, for the first time ever, the Shield competition was a draw between red and green: another historic milestone.
This was a magnificent achievement for Swansea, which has a smaller pool of athletes to draw on. It symbolises the fact that Wales is fortunate to have two great universities, with nothing to choose between them. Apart from the fact that only one of them is Welsh University of the Year.
As for the rugby, where Varsity started, this too has grown, to the extent that the Varsity game is now the biggest club-level match in Wales.
But the historic significance of this year’s rugby encounter lay elsewhere. The women’s game was the first women’s rugby match ever to be staged in the Principality Stadium, the greatest rugby arena in the world.
To see the players in the women’s teams run out onto that famous pitch was to witness a moment in history. How fitting that it should be the up-and-coming generation of players who took part in that deeply symbolic first game, smashing another glass ceiling.
Of course it was always a lack of opportunities, not talent, that held women players back. Richard Burton, Port Talbot-born star of stage and screen, recalls watching Taibach against Aberavon as a boy, with a woman entertaining the crowds before the game by dropping goals from forty yards with either foot.
Welsh Varsity deserves enormous credit for creating opportunities for women athletes, giving their sports the profile and status they have often lacked. Today’s rugby match was a giant leap forward. And it completed a historic double triumph for women’s sport in Wales, coming on the same day as Jess Fishlock became the first footballer – man or woman - to reach 100 caps for Wales.
Forget the so-called battle of the sexes. The only rivalry that matters on Varsity day is red and green. The whole day is a great swirling carnival of colour, its energy pulsating through the city, before massing in the stadium. Principality Stadium, one of the great cathedrals of world sport, is made for Varsity. Even the seats are red and green.
With the roof shut, the stadium was a bubbling cauldron of colour and noise. Cardiff writer Peter Finch describes it as a gleaming four-towered UFO, landed in the middle of Cardiff like a visitor from Andromeda. But rather than little green men coming out, there was a green and white army flooding in. They came, they saw, but could they conquer?
Picture: Win or lose, sing for Swansea: the main choral section of the Green and White Army, roaring their teams on
Success for the women in historic match
First up: the women. Swansea started on the front foot, controlling the game for the first quarter, pinning Cardiff back in their own half for long periods, switching between keeping it tight and spreading the ball wide.
The pressure brought its reward. A penalty from Megan Griffiths was followed by a vintage scrum-half’s try from Jessica McReery, who darted over after some formidable mauling by her pack.
After soaking up Swansea pressure for 25 minutes, Cardiff were finally able to apply some of their own, setting up some promising attacking platforms in Swansea’s 22.
But Swansea were resolute in defence, pulling off some crunching tackles which pushed Cardiff backwards, forcing spills and errors. There was simply more energy, shape and purpose about the Swansea attack. The point was proven when a blistering Swansea back line move from midfield, with crisp and speedy passing, led to winger Emma Hennessy scoring after a jinking run that foxed pursuing Cardiff defenders.
Cardiff must have had a rousing team talk in the half-time dressing room. They flew out of the blocks for the second half, scoring within a couple of minutes of the restart. 13-5. Would the pendulum start to swing back towards the women in red?
The game was becoming more open now, with both teams more willing to run at their opponents, even from deep in their own territory. This was a far more even affair than the first half. Was the Cardiff comeback on?
Cometh the hour, cometh the fans. Now was the moment for the green and white army, swelling in number, to get behind their team. A hard core of singers was forming in the stands near the tunnel, whipping up the crowd and roaring the team on. They unfurled a giant banner, which looked suspiciously like the ones seen around the University campus (though if it was, I have it on good authority that they all asked permission to borrow it). Its message? We are the Welsh University of the Year. Apparently some of the Cardiff contingent had forgotten, so it was helpful to remind them.
Picture: Green and White Army: we salute you!
Urged on by the crowd, Swansea began to reassert their dominance. An extraordinary rolling maul must have powered the green pack 20 metres: they could have kept going all the way to Bridgend. Swansea were turning the screw. Forwards and backs were combining to inch the women in green closer to the line. Patient and composed, Swansea looked for the opening in the red wall. Finally, Lydia Shelton, number 8, somehow found a way through a forest of Cardiff defenders to cross near the posts.
Clinical in attack, 18-5 up, as the game drew to a close, it was time for Swansea to display their exceptional defensive skills. Cardiff were going for broke now, looking to create opportunities. But the Swansea defence, ferocious and well-marshalled, remined unbreached. Even when the women in green went down to 14 players, there still seemed to be 3 of them for every one Cardiff player. Sparkling breaks out of defence by captain Robyn Harris and wing Emma Hennessy – both always alive to the gaps and the space - helped relieve the pressure, seeing Swansea home. Sharper in attack, stronger in defence, Swansea had earned a well-deserved victory.
They ran, strode and hobbled their way over to receive the salute from the fans. Given how momentous this game was for women’s rugby, both teams – Swansea and Cardiff - were pioneers and winners. But it is Swansea who are champions.
Battling defeat for the men
Picture: Swansea cut through the Cardiff defence, battling all game
It was over to the men now, in the second game of this first ever Varsity rugby double-header.
It was a fast and furious start, with Cardiff looking to attack from the outset. The men in green had to withstand wave after wave of Cardiff attacks, but they were equal to it.
With fifteen minutes gone, and after soaking up relentless Cardiff pressure, Swansea began to get the edge, finding holes in the Cardiff defence, and enjoying more possession and territory. They were rewarded by a well-taken drop goal from just in front of the 10m line by outside half Rory Garrett. Minutes later, they were agonisingly close to extending their lead after a scorching 50m break out of defence. Enveloped just short of the line by half of Cardiff, the Swansea forwards regrouped and forced themselves over the line, only for the ball to be knocked on as it was being grounded for the try.
Agony at one end, then at the other: Cardiff broke out of defence, with their backs running 70 metres to score a magnificent counter-attacking try. It was harsh on Swansea, who had been building momentum and come so close to scoring. More agony: a Swansea penalty right at the end of the half bounced back off the post. But despite these setbacks for the men in green, the first half had seen them show their quality in attack and defence.
Half-time saw more extraordinary athleticism – and artistry – from the Swansea Siren cheerleaders. Some of their acrobatics seemed to defy the laws of physics: forming graceful towers of green and white, leaping higher than locks in a lineout. It was an explosion of energy, adding hugely to this great occasion.
Swansea started the second half with purpose, attacking down the wing before being pushed into touch close to the corner flag. But it was Cardiff who seized their opportunity, when a period of sustained pressure won them a turnover close to the Swansea line, from which they moved the ball out wide to score in the corner.
Moments later, they struck again, with a lightning break from their outside-half, the architect of most of their attacks, which split the Swansea defence, with the men in red taking a quick tap penalty to score. A clever cross kick led to another score, and within a period of 15 minutes, they had put the game beyond Swansea.
The crowd did their best to rally the troops, and the men in green responded. Good running by full-back Phil Jones, later named man of the match by the Vice Chancellor, created space for centre Richard Smith to finish in convincing style, with Jones converting. A Cardiff break led to another try, but again Swansea responded, fighting to the last, and earning their reward with a last-gasp forwards try.
Wins for sport and for Swansea
Speaking after the game, Swansea University Vice Chancellor Professor Richard B Davies paid tribute to Swansea’s never-say-die attitude, and said that all Varsity players were a credit to Swansea.
As ever, Welsh Varsity had been a magnificent occasion, and a fitting climax to a week of sporting competition. This year, when it came of age, it was a truly historic encounter. It was a day for passion, celebration and joy: a win for students, for Swansea, and for sport.
- Friday 7 April 2017 13.49 GMT
- Friday 7 April 2017 14.24 GMT
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