The main event of a jam-packed day represented the biggest day in the calendar for both Cardiff and Swansea. On the 18th occasion this match has been played, a crowd of 13,835 turned up to cheer their respective universities on.
Since its inception in 1997, the Welsh Varsity has come to represent far more than rugby or even sport in general. The Universities’ flagship sporting event unites students of all academic courses together, regardless of whether they are rugby fans or not, in support of their university.
Man of the match Nicky Thomas, who represented Wales Under-20s in the final of last season’s Junior World Championship, summed the occasion up when he said: “This is the highlight of my calendar if I am perfectly honest.
“It’s something that you remember and you just love the atmosphere,” said the promising tighthead prop.
Ultimately, it was the 120kg Ospreys powerhouse who was the major difference in what was, on the whole, a forward-dominated affair.
Thomas was the most influential player on the paddock as he went about annihilating Cardiff’s scrum almost single-handedly.
This clash may have been built up to be an epic, but, in truth, it was an extremely nervy and error-strewn affair.
Both sides seemed to take the field with a mentality of minimising mistakes rather than going all-out to win. It was always going to be the team that held its nerve in key moments of the game that would emerge victorious.
Despite Swansea fielding the stronger squad on paper, it was Cardiff that started the brighter with their superb captain James Thomas winning a penalty at the breakdown in the first minute. From the subsequent lineout, Thomas made a scything break into Swansea’s 22 and Cardiff were awarded a penalty that Jack Neville slotted for the first points.
Former hooker Arthur Ellis, whom Cardiff director of rugby Martyn Fowler selected in the centre to neutralise the threat of his fellow Ospreys starlet Matthew Jenkins, was a constant thorn in Swansea’s side.
Ellis more often than not comfortably beat his first defender and his classy offloading game ensured that Swansea were put under pressure early on.
Unfortunately for Cardiff, the first scrum of the match set the tone for the rest of the encounter, with Nicky Thomas dismantling his opposite number Tom Boot to earn his side’s first penalty.
Wales Sevens man Will Thomas failed with the attempt at goal, but the precedent had been set.
The visitors began to win the collisions in the first quarter of the match, but some outstanding Cardiff defence, epitomised by a terrific performance from James Thomas at the breakdown, kept Swansea at bay.
Going into the second quarter of the match, Cardiff still led by three points to nil, but Swansea started to wear the home side down with a series of scrums close to the hosts’ try line.
The pendulum swung emphatically towards Swansea on 26 minutes when Cardiff tighthead prop Aled Rees was given ten minutes in the sin bin for illegally collapsing one such scrum.
Replacement front-rower Morgan Bozanko replaced winger James Brock to ensure that the floundering Cardiff pack retained their full complement of players, but it made little difference as referee Neil Hennessy swiftly awarded a penalty try. Outside half Will Thomas added the extra two points to give the visitors a 7-3 lead on the half-hour mark.
The adversity seemed to spark the home side into life as they found some decent field position at last.
From the top of the lineout, Ellis steamrollered Will Thomas and unleashed a delightful offload out of the back door.
The ball found its way into the arms of Neville, who followed it up with an outstanding floated pass to put Tom O’Flaherty in for a try in the corner.
Neville missed the touchline conversion, but Cardiff were back in the lead at 8-7.
The sight of Rees returning to the field boosted James Thomas’ troops further and put immense pressure on what seemed to be a shell-shocked Swansea side.
In the dying moments of the half, Thomas broke through three tackles and got a tricky offload away to Iwan Phillips, who was bundled into touch in the last act before the break.
The second half began with Cardiff penalised in a useful position for holding on to the ball on the floor.
Will Thomas then duly drilled the ball down into Cardiff’s 22 with a monster kick to touch.
From the ensuing lineout there was only one tactic Swansea were going to employ, with openside flanker Jack Perkins the beneficiary of a powerful catch-and-drive to earn his team their second try of the evening. The conversion was missed, but Swansea had regained the lead with a score line of 12-8 on 45 minutes.
Twelve minutes later, Ellis smashed over the gain line once again, before Neville threaded a neat ball through the onrushing defence. Unfortunately, O’Flaherty couldn’t capitalise and knocked on with the try line at his mercy.
Predictably, the visitors won a penalty from the scrum that followed, with Will Thomas gaining the away side crucial field position, and it was from here that the Swans grabbed the crucial score.
From a Cardiff point of view, it was far too easy for them. Swansea threw to Jenkins storming up at the back of the lineout. O’Flaherty missed a straightforward tackle on the imposing centre, allowing the 20-year-old to run in unopposed for a seven-pointer.
Despite staring into the abyss at 19 points to eight down, Fowler’s men refused to submit.
On the hour, Cardiff scrum half John Preddy took a quick penalty, which was passed through Cardiff hands before deflecting into the path of O’Flaherty, who dived over under the posts.
Referee Hennessy consulted the television match official, and awarded the try that, along with the simple conversion, brought Cardiff right back into contention at 15-19.
Cardiff would have hoped to gain more territory after this try, but it wasn’t to be. The visitors had learned their lesson and kept the ball tucked up their jumpers to nullify Cardiff’s backs.
As the clock ticked down, Swansea turned the screw and camped on the home side’s try line with a series of five-metre scrums.
A second penalty try looked inevitable, but Hennessy remarkably awarded Cardiff a penalty from the scrum, which gave Cardiff a lifeline in this encounter.
The home team battled desperately to salvage a result and earned a penalty with five minutes to go. The sensible option seemed to be to launch the ball deep into Swansea’s 22 to give themselves a chance at winning the game, but Cardiff strangely opted to go for goal from the halfway line and Bryn Phillips’ effort was well off-target.
Still Cardiff came back at Swansea as Ellis yet again broke the line and put in a neat pass to Iwan Phillips, but the fullback couldn’t get past his man and was ushered into touch as Hennessy called time on a full-blooded contest.
It was a valiant effort from an unfancied Cardiff outfit, whose never-say-die attitude very nearly brought them a famous victory.
Unfortunately, the visitors had too much firepower up front as their dominant set piece proving the difference.
Fowler, coaching the University for the final time, was quick to praise the commitment of his players.
“On paper, the general perception was that Swansea were 40 points stronger than us, given their Under-20 internationals and experience,” he said.
“Only six players from our side had ever played in a Varsity match before.
“They couldn’t have done anymore and the difference was ultimately one individual error for the try.
“Everything we worked on worked, particularly in terms of our defensive systems.
“I could not have been prouder of that group of young men even if they had won.”