The Lockdown Shield: Cardiff Dream XV v. Cardiff Blues Ultimate XV
It is said that Narcissus, as punishment from Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, was cursed to gaze into a pool of clear spring water. Seeing himself in the full bloom of youth he fell in love with his own reflection and could not depart. Such was the love he felt for himself, eventually the fires of passion residing within consumed him entirely, and he left behind only a flower.
Let us hope nothing of this sort happens this week at the eagerly anticipated clash of the Cardiff Blues Ultimate XV and Cardiff RFC Dream XV in the Lockdown Shield at a virtual Cardiff Arms Park. A sense of expectation has been building for weeks as the teams take shape and what shape they have taken. Sports scientists have descended on the Cardiff Blues training centre hoping to give the light blue and dark blue men every advantage. Meanwhile, the Cambridge blue and blacks have been seen in Fforest Fawr tackling trees under the stewardship of Dr Jack Matthews. The hard work has been put in. Both teams arrive in the peak of physical condition and aim to put pay to the foolish idea that Cardiff rugby is merely a complacent, pompous beast with a tendency toward pretension and self-regard. Or that the fracture in the time-space continuum of 2003 was anything but a distracting and temporary hiatus.
Legendary is a term often thrown like confetti but it’s clear those players who will stride onto the hallowed 3G this weekend make Zeus seem feeble and hollow. Surely a testament to a club with a history of excellence that would make Mount Olympus quiver.
Meanwhile, the socially-distancing South Glamorgan Youth Orchestra has been reformed in order to compete with the playing of ‘Hey Baby’ over the PA. On the South Terrace, the Blues Brothers with their drums and weird, tribal chanting are expected to be countered by a rowdy mob of 1930s fans from down the docks. It is anticipated that Peter Thomas and Hubert Johnson will be joined by Raoul Foa and a legion of other great committee men for drinks in the hastily reassembled 1904 Pavilion, which for this match will replace the hospitality boxes at the river end. And, as is usual, the North Terrace will be occupied by uncouth, but highly knowledgeable, sorts blown in from across the decades and, as has always been the case, from all over South Wales. Despite inexcusable shortages in the real world, in this fantasy world all players, spectators and officials have been tested to ensure that any health concerns have been comprehensively addressed.
And so the stage is set…
Where to start? The backs. The piano players. The soft shoe shufflers. The fleet footed superstars who in many cases redefined their positions and provided moments for home supporters to cherish and supporters of lesser clubs to fear, rejoicing in the four three-quarter system which they themselves invented. Once upon a time there were 6 of them. Now there are 7. Cardiff rugby did that. Because at the Arms Park you can never have too much of a good thing.
Rayer v Blair. The unstoppable meets the unflappable. This promises to be an intriguing match-up. Rayer's entries into the line are the inspiration for Swiss watchmakers everywhere whilst Blair is as solid as they come with the positional awareness of a GPS. Can Rayer deal with Blair's kicking game and own line breaks? Can Blair read Rayer's running game? This clash is probably worth the ticket price alone.
This match-up is so mouth-watering that Escoffier has asked us for the recipe. Pace, power, football in a clash as much stylistic as it will be fast. The Cambridge blue and blacks offer pure raw pace which will undoubtedly cause problems, Davies and Walker, all balance and footwork, will not need half a yard to rip the defence to pieces. The blue and blues' James and Cuthbert offer raw physicality and uncanny try scoring nous with their pace - any barn doors in the area would do well to steer clear.
The Prince and the Circus Master vs the two Jamies. Football and grace take on power and pace, the outcome which will go a long way in deciding the game. Bleddyn will carve the most exquisite lines whilst Robinson will look to cut him off using the best drift since The Fast and the Furious. Ring will have every trick in the book and probably utilise them all whilst Roberts will look to go Route one. The blue and Blues need to be wary of the Ring to Rayer play whilst the blue and blacks will need to hope the prince of centres keeps the excesses of the clown prince alongside him in hand. Make no mistake, this could well be where the game is won or lost. Robinson will be under pressure to justify selection over Casey Laulala, whilst Williams himself is similarly placed after being preferred to Gwyn Nicholls in the starting XV.
Before we get into the match-up, a moment to reflect on those players not selected. In any other universe Cliff Morgan would be a shoe-in but such is the strength in depth he is left with a place on the bench. Percy Bush is believed to have reacted to his non-selection by disappearing to the docks shouting obscenities and boarding a steamer to the south of France. His plans are unclear.
And so it is John v Robinson. The clash of kings. Barry all grace under fire and Nicky with a passing game which could easily unlock Fort Knox. It’s difficult to imagine how Nicky will feel seeing his opposite number pull the strings but for the blue and blues to have any chance he must treat it like any other game, we know John will.
Again, take a moment to reflect on those players who have not made the cut. Howley, Willis, Moore for the blue and blacks, Spice, Phillips for the blue and blues.
Edwards v Williams. The Master v The Apprentice. Each player capable of doing the amazing with seemingly little effort. Blessed with pace and vision, both players could be pivotal. Edwards is the master of his arena, linking again with John will bring the best of him - how frightening is that - he obviously won't intimidated by the exuberance of Williams. Like Robinson, Williams must treat this as any other game and leave the autograph book in the changing room.
Now we turn to the game's true aristocrats. Many call them piano pushers, but better to call them piano builders. Before anyone can play, craftsmen need to build and fine tune the Steinway Grands that fill the world's concert halls. Ladies and gentlemen, stand aside. The dukes and barons that wear 1 to 8 come to us bedecked with the finest Vaseline coated eyebrows and blood-stained bandages. The only worship they crave is the sound of their vanquished foes begging mercy as they are driven into the mud. Nevertheless, give praise.
Three Lions and a King. Nearly two centuries of experience and barely a smile between them. The man they call Melon taking on the man who must only ever be called either Dai or Sir. On the other side of the skirmish, The King of Tonga himself takes on perhaps the most technically accomplished loose head to have played at the Arms Park, Mr Mikey Griffiths.
Don't expect the blue and black props to be as prominent in the loose as their blue and blue opponents. But the charges and jackals of the double blues may yet be exhausted by the subterranean engineering of the blue and black technicians. After all, it’s hard to run when you can’t walk.
Yet again a fascinating match up with both men seeking to justify their selections. British Lion and the man they call ‘Thumper’, Alan Phillips is unlucky to not start whilst Geoff Beckingham's refusal to wear a tie failed to impress the dandies among the selection committee.
Both Humphreys and Rees will be seeking to redefine exactly where the offside line is. Having once had a fantasy rugby team named ‘Offside Humphreys’ in his honour may shade it, but both men will be willing to be trodden on for the greater good. Rees is all arms and legs, powerful with occasional errant arrows, Humphreys canny, brave, with his heart on the sleeve with errant arrows occasionally. Expect clever interventions at the breakdown and a few rumbles to get the crowd going. Whoever controls his arrows best will be key.
The engine room. The pack's heart of darkness. Craig Quinnell and Robert Norster vs Macaulay Cook and Paul Tito. Blue and black tall timber meets blue and blue Tasmanian devils.
Norster will command air supremacy like Baron von Richthofen, able to change shape to allow him to snaffle ball. Ground support coming from the Sherman tank that is Quinnell, bringing the right sort of girth to scrum and maul. Ginger Maori Tito, like his Yugoslavian namesake, will often strike silently, occasionally strike outside the laws of war, but will always strike hard. Cook, Barbarian-like, the lone uncapped player at senior level, will bring blood, sweat and the assurance that he will dive on a grenade for the blue and blue cause.
The word in Butetown is that emissaries from Far Eastern gambling syndicates and the Las Vegas mob have been in town. All searching for clues to the winner of this battle of the two objects that will move for no f***er.
Baugh vs Navidi. The rocky mountain whirlwind versus the Persian Prince of Pen-y-Bont. Further words on this contest feel redundant.
Where the blue and blacks think they own a 999-year lease on the outside half factory, the blue and blues claim ancestral rights over the openside flanker foundry. The All Blues come into this particular battle cocky about the riches at their disposal though, in a diplomatic storm, ignoring the blue and blacks claims for primacy when it came to the ginger one.
Unable to play for both teams, Williams is expected to dominate this battle. But, while some streetfighters come in swinging, others wait for the right moment to tickle your ribs. Ming the Merciless may yet out-think the man they call Nugget if he lets his guard down and is overly focussed on his post-match media duties.
The Devonian meets Aucklander, unstoppable force meets immovable object. John Scott vs Xavier Rush. Both players now involved in the weaving business, how they intertwine themselves on the game will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Scott, a master of controlling the ball at the back of the scrum knowing when to drive and when to release, he will undoubtedly let Tomos Williams know he is there. Rush, all frenetic energy and living for the hit will look to get into midfield with the clear intent of letting Ring and John know tackling is no longer a discretionary part of the game which can be devolved to their back-row colleagues.
Scottie, unsurprisingly, captains the Dream XV. Interestingly, the blue and blues have yet to name their general- a possible sign of there being dissent in the camp as some have suggested or, more likely, just a sign of the leadership riches available?
The blue and blues have a strong looking bench, having gone for a classic 5:3 split in favour of forwards over backs. John Yapp, T. Rhys Thomas, Bradley Davies and Dillon Lewis comprise the former, together with the Lions legend that is Sam Warburton. The backs include the hero of Bilbao, Gareth ‘Chicken’ Anscombe, alongside Tom Shanklin and Lloyd Williams. The blue and blacks have followed suit with five forwards- selecting the icons that are Howard Norris (with his invaluable ability to play both sides of the scrum), Alan Phillips, Keith Rowlands, Sidd Judd and Emyr ‘Y Tarw’ Lewis. The back substitutes are sublime: Terry Holmes, Cliff Morgan, and Gwyn Nicholls.
Through the assistance of the latest and finest computer algorithms, all issues of the professional v. amateur, pasta v. kipper, training v. not training, cotton v. synthetic etc. have been rigorously controlled for and, though the match will be played under 2020 laws, the Dream XV will thus suffer no disadvantage and play on the most balanced of level fields. Nor will they be distracted by having already won the best jersey competition. The match will be refereed by a fully-coiffured Clive Norling, with Derek Bevan and Gwyn Walters running the line. Stan Bowes, who it was very much hoped would act as linesman, has had to be replaced after unsavoury comments about those ‘light blue and dark blue bastards’ appeared in the press.
Virtual tickets naturally sold out instantly, no amount of bit coin now being able to secure one. Your intrepid reporter has however obtained a golden press ticket and the match report will be forthcoming in the electronic pink ’un this weekend. For contractual reasons (and because some participants will need a longer recovery period at half-time), the first-half report will appear on Friday and the second on Saturday. An already tense occasion will therefore be made unbearable.
This coliseum on the banks of the River Taff will be at its undemonstrative best, the crowd content and confident as always, ready with a tut, an elongated ‘Caaaaaaardiff’ and drumming of uncertain metre. The occasional shout of ‘Come on the blues’ will also no doubt be heard, but will have as much meaning as if uttered in a Varsity match; which ‘blue’ is the question? The stage is set, the players are nearly ready and those lucky enough to gain entry, whilst sitting and standing well apart from friends and colleagues, will hopefully witness all that is good about rugby and all that is excellent about the Cardiff club.
Pob lwc men. Cofio, y ddraig goch a Gaerdydd ddry cychwen