We begin at the end (all 89 minutes-plus of it) and state what needs to be said: the best team won. Llandovery were ahead on the scoreboard from the third to the 80th minute before Craig Evans delivered what appeared to be a double whammy of body blows with dropped goals that put the Blue & Blacks on the brink of cup winning heaven. As his second strike bisected the posts in the 87th minute celebrations in the grandstand and on the touchline began. Alas, they proved to be all too premature.
Historians of the cup in all its manifestations, from Schweppes to Swalec and Principality and now Konica Minolta, knew better. When it comes to final showdowns it’s not so much a case of waiting for the fat lady to sing as putting head in the hands and trying to ignore the almost annual final twist in the tale. Over the years Cardiff have experienced extra time against Swansea (successfully), a killer drop goal from Llanelli (helplessly), and an afternoon of soporific inertia against Newport (and in the centenary season at that). More recently the semi-professional sides from the Premiership have delivered modern dramas of their own with, in successive years, Llanelli and Pontypridd sneaking last gasp victories.
Now it seemed to be Cardiff’s turn with Evans’ opportunism robbing Llandovery of a first ever cup triumph. Infuriatingly, the stadium’s electronic clock, still behind the times as it doesn’t ‘stop’ whenever the referee calls time out in the play, ticked merrily around to the magic 80 and then goes no further. It showed 79 min 38 sec as Evans dropped his first goal to give Cardiff a 15-13 lead. Seven minutes later it was showing 80 as he added his second and the lead stretched to 18-13. And, yes, it was still showing 80 as the Drovers’ restarted once more and frantically kept the ball alive as they tried to manufacture a winning try. A conversion would be irrelevant as they were already ahead on try count. Somehow, Cardiff kept them out at the right corner - and somehow they came back again with recycled ball to the left. With all Cardiff praying for a spilled pass somewhere in their two-man overlap Llandovery successfully spooned the ball wide to replacement prop Endaf Howells. And over he trundled for the tr
y that won the cup. Howard Thomas’ touchline conversion finished the script perfectly as the new cup champions could justly claim daylight between the sides on the scoreboard as well as the try-scoring.
It was a shattering end to a day that had started so well for Cardiff. The clubhouse was en fete from midday as everyone looked forward to what lay ahead. Supporters old and new turned out to see the new model Blue and Blacks in the flesh. The tragedy that followed was not merely confined to losing the cup; it was also a case of possibly failing to convince the sceptics that this was a team and a set-up worth following more regularly. The team is better - much, much better - than what they served up on this day. All the heroics of a first-ever cup win at the Gnoll, closely followed by a points-fest at St Helens and a semi-final victory of guts and character over Bridgend will count for nothing in some people’s eyes after ‘failing to turn up’ on the big day - a characteristic not unique to the gallant Premiership squad.
For the record, Llandovery led 10-0 after 11 minutes, courtesy of turnover ball and a 50-metre kick and chase for Viv Jenkins to touch down in the corner. The impressive 21-year-old fly half Howard Thomas converted from the touchline and then added a 30-metre penalty goal. By half-time, after both sides had lost flankers Gavin Lucas and Gareth Williams to the sin-bin in turn, Cardiff had pulled back six points through two Craig Evans penalty goals from close range. Early in the second half he missed another from 38 metres and Thomas slotted one from 35 metres in the 52nd minute. At 13-6 and with the game drifting towards its final quarter the alarm bells were beginning to ring. Thankfully, the lineout possession, so tardy for most of the first hour, was improving. So was the urgency. But still there was too much spilled ball in the contact area. There was never a hint of a try despite the now overwhelming territorial advantage. So Evans satisfied himself and the fans with penalty goals from 40 and 35 metres.
Then over went the first of his dropped goals and, albeit precariously, one hand was on the cup. Evans and Darren Allinson looked to be turning the knife in Llandovery’s wounds as two pin point grubber kicks took their pack to the brink of the opposition line. From the second, Evans dropped his next goal and surely that was that.
Not quite. This is the cup final. With both teams almost out on their feet that last, painful pass reached Endaf Howells and the final denouement (as they say in downtown Llandovery) was delivered.
For all their disappointment, Cardiff’s players and supporters could acknowledge that justice had been done.
A ludicrous post-script to the proceedings was the selection of the Man of the Match. Over the years the Lloyd Lewis Trophy has been awarded to the player chosen by the assembled written media. These days the choice is made by S4C. Moments before the end it was announced that Craig Evans was the recipient. Then Llandovery scored. Now flanker Eifion Gwynne (who, it must be said, was outstanding throughout) received the hastily amended accolade. Back to those cup final historians who will tell you that the Man of the Match can, indeed, come from the losing finalists. (Remember, as one instance, Brett Davey’s winning 20 points and Scott Quinnell’s award in 2002). Whatever, when a decision is made those entrusted with the responsibility should stick with it.