Cardiff edge out Swansea in enthralling Varsity encounter

A battling Swansea performance was not quite enough to stop a strong and clinical Cardiff team from claiming a 23-15 victory in an enthralling Varsity game at the Liberty Stadium.

It was the 22nd Varsity match, with Swansea still retaining an overall lead in the fixture, clocking up 13 victories to Cardiff’s 8, with one draw.

600 x 343Picture:  Swansea steel: two Cardiff tacklers needed to halt this attack

Earlier in the day, Swansea women’s rugby team had trounced their Cardiff rivals.   And athletes from up to 40 sports – from golf to water polo - had competed for the Varsity Shield during a whole week of sporting competition between Wales’s two major universities.

But this was the climax.  It was a breezy, sun-dappled and fluffy-clouded evening in the Swansea Valley. Peaceful.   Apart from 15,000 students screaming their hearts out for their team. 

A magnificent carnival of red and green, the students are of course the heart of Varsity.  And what a hardy bunch they are.  Many were braving the chilly air wearing T-shirts, though no doubt warmed and fortified from the inside.  

Before the game, players and fans remembered Swansea Varsity player Ian Williams, who passed away recently.  

Then, as the noise reached ear-splitting levels, we were under way. 

It was Swansea who started with far more flair and purpose to their play.  They starved Cardiff of possession, patiently probing the defence for gaps, keeping play in the Cardiff half.   Eventually, a clever grubber kick from fly half Rory Garrett pierced the thin red line, with wing Hywel Williams diving smartly onto a bouncing ball behind Cardiff’s line to score.

With 20 minutes gone, Swansea had done virtually all the attacking, and shown by far the most enterprise and ambition.  But the scoreboard didn’t reflect their dominance.  For all their pressure and attacking verve, they had only a slender lead to show for it.  Cardiff had barely got past the Swansea 10m line, but two penalties meant they were still close behind: 8-6.  

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Picture: Swansea Varsity fans enjoy the occasion

As if by prior agreement, just as the game went into its second quarter, momentum swung towards Cardiff.   Strong line-outs and scrums gave them a solid attacking platform, as they rumbled into the Swansea half, dominating possession and territory.

Resolute defence by Swansea, including some heroic steals by the forwards, kept the men in red at bay.   Finally, however, Cardiff broke through.  A line-out on the 5m line led to a forwards’ try under the posts.

Still Cardiff pressed, yet still Swansea stood firm, inching their way back upfield.   

Half-time. 13-8, and the game was finely balanced.  Cardiff had been slightly more clinical with their chances to score, but in truth there was little to choose between the teams.   It was still all to play for.

The athleticism didn’t stop at half time.   The Swansea Sirens cheerleaders wowed the crowd with extraordinary feats of acrobatics.   No less extraordinary was some of the wild student dancing in the stands, beamed around the ground on the big screens.  

Day had turned to night by the time the second half got under way.   But what hadn’t changed was both teams’ will to attack and to run their opponents ragged.

A strong Swansea scrum led to a penalty, narrowly missed.  In contrast, minutes later, a clever kick and chase by Cardiff broke the Swansea defensive line, and a sustained period of pressure led to a Cardiff try under the posts.  It was the pivotal phase of the game.

The Cardiff lead had now stretched to 20-8.  But Swansea fought on like lions, still looking to spread the ball wide.  They had lost none of their ambition and creativity: a cute chip almost caught the Cardiff backs napping, and a clever crossfield kick agonisingly eluded the grasp of the Swansea winger running onto it.    

Cardiff were managing their lead well, however, containing Swansea in their own half, retaining possession when they had it, keeping things tight and running down the clock.   A further Cardiff penalty took it to 23-8.  With only 15 minutes left, the game was slipping away from Swansea.

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Hywel Williams, named as Vice Chancellor's Man of the Match, scores for Swansea

But it was the green giants who had the last word, ending the game as they had begun it: in the driving seat.   An unstoppable rolling maul powered the Swansea forwards to within a whisker of the Cardiff line.   They could have kept going all the way to Neath.   All Cardiff could do to stop it was to infringe.  The result: a penalty try to Swansea, taking the final score to 23-15 to Cardiff.

It had been an absorbing spectacle of running creative rugby, with two teams fizzing with attacking ambition.   At times, it was like watching Sevens, with backs running from deep and passes flying everywhere.  In football terms, imagine today’s Liverpool playing Brazil of the 1970s: exciting, entertaining and enthralling.   

In the end, Cardiff’s slightly more clinical edge gave them the victory.  But there is no doubting the creativity, flair and the monumental effort of the Swansea team.  

As Swansea University Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Davies told the players after the game: “you have been excellent ambassadors, and you have all done Swansea University proud”. 

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