For the last month or so the World Cup has been a fantastic tournament, basically everything I, and every rugby fan, hoped it would be. However, one man hasn’t enjoyed it at all, and his name is Danny Wilson. He hasn’t enjoyed it for one reason, because he’s been forced to Ireland almost every weekend during it. While Cardiff Arms Park has been transformed into a massive pub/rugby cinema, the Blues have been touring the Emerald Isle on a search for points to kickstart a push for European Champions Cup rugby.
After beating Zebre at home before CAP was ruined for six weeks the week before, Cardiff travelled out to Dublin to start the Ireland tour against Leo Cullen’s Leinster. The Blues were boosted by the return of Kristian Dacey to the team after being released by Wales, with Craig Mitchell joining him up front to replace the injured Tau Filise. The other change to the team came in the backs as Owen Jenkins started in place of Tom James, who suffered a recurrence of the foot injury suffered with Wales. On the bench, Ethan Lewis dropped down to take Rhys Williams’ seat, Scott Andrews took the spare prop place, and Macauley Cook replaced Lou Reed.
On the pitch, the changes to the front row were working well as we looked dominant in the scrum and at the breakdown, resulting in a 6-0 lead via two Patchell penalties either side of a Nacewa miss. The Leinster kicker did make up for his miss though as he made it 6-3, before disaster struck for Cardiff. Te’o took on the crash ball from halfway and made good ground, putting us in scramble defence mode, but there was no recovery after a few quick phases, and Jack Conan forced his way over, confirmed via the TMO for no reason. Only a monster Patchell penalty from halfway kept us within a point, as he recovered his kicking form following an indifferent day off the tee against Zebre.
The second half began with Patchell and Nacewa traded two penalties each to make it 16-15 to the home side, before Leinster really ramped up the pressure in the last 10 minutes. Phase-after-phase came at the Cardiff defence, but we stood strong, finished off by great work from Ellis Jenkins to hold up replacement hooker Bryan Byrne. This resulted in back-to-back scrums and eventually a Leinster line out. They went to the front and set up a maul, Hoeata attacked it and went through the middle to the ground, Navidi followed up and the maul went down. No appeals, the home side ready to recycle the maul. Then the busy body touch judge gets involved, and referee Ben Whitehouse awards a penalty and inexplicably sin bins a perplexed Josh Navidi. A man down and Leinster opt for the scrum. The ball goes in and the scrum stands stationary square for an age, but no call from Whitehouse to get the ball out. Then the scrum starts to wheel and the Welsh referee is off, waddling over to the posts and the Dublin side have a penalty try. Nacewa adds the extras and we are denied at least one hard earned pointin extremely unfair circumstances.
Final score: Leinster 23-15 Cardiff
The team had three weeks to lick the wounds received at the Royal Dublin Showground Arene before a trip the stadium with the most boring name in the league, Connacht Sportsground. Danny Wilson made three changes to the starting XV as fit again Richard Smith replaced Owen Jenkins, Lou Reed came in for James Down, and Ellis Jenkins started ahead of Manoa Vosawai. On the bench, Matthew Rees was fit enough to take Ethan Lewis’ place, while Dillon Lewis was ready to take his Pro12 chance ahead of Scott Andrews, and James Down and Manoa Vosawai in the replacements left no room for Macauley Cook.
After two cracking encounters last season, which the Blues only won on aggregate by a point in the 87th minute of the second game, we were hopefully in for a humdinger of a match, and we weren’t disappointed. Things started well for Cardiff as Aled Summerhill intercepted a looping pass to run 80 metres for his third try of the season, with Patchell adding the extras. However, it all went sour quickly, Connacht scrum half Marmion went straight from the base of a ruck to under the posts three minutes after Summerhill’s score. Then two home tries in five minutes, first from the great named flanker Nepia Fox-Matamua at the back of a driving maul, before Danie Poolman finished off a flowing Connacht move in the corner. Thankfully Cardiff were still in touch at half time thanks to a Josh Turnbull pick-and-go try from two yards, and Patchell nailing the conversion and a penalty soon after to go in only 19-17 down at half time.
The second half followed the first very closely as we scored first, this time after 8 minutes. Unfortunately Summerhill had gone off with concussion by now, so it was down to Dan Fish to neatly grubber kick through Connacht’s defensive line, before hacking the ball on twice to be able to pick up and dive over the line. Patchell’s conversion put us five points ahead, but again it didn’t last. A further two home tries, this time in five second half minutes, put Connacht in the driving seat. First, fullback Tiernan O’Halloran collected a Jack Carty cross kick to score, before replacement Ally Muldowney powered over. Carty converted both and a further penalty took the game beyond Cardiff. However, we weren’t about to totally give up yet as, in time added on at the end of the match, Sam Hobbs got quick ball from a Rhys Patchell mini-break and burrowed over to not only get within the magic seven point range, but also score our fourth try. A disappointing result in the sense that this should’ve been the most winnable game of the tour, but two points isn’t too bad of a consolation prize.
Final score: Connacht 36-31 Cardiff
A further two weeks passed before the Irish tour recommenced in Cork, on the back of a euphoric weekend for Welsh rugby with a victory over England, and in the build up of possibly another great evening as Wales took on Australia at Twickenham. Danny Wilson had a couple of enforced changes to make with Aled Summerhill (concussion), Josh Navidi (neck) and Jarrad Hoeata (calf) missed out, replaced by Garyn Smith, Manoa Vosawai and James Down respectively. The only other starting XV change came at hooker where Kristian Dacey was rested, Matthew Rees starting in his place. On the bench, Macauley Cook and Jevon Groves took the vacant forward slots, and winger Harry Davies made his first appearance in a Pro12 match day squad.
With Munster unbeaten in the season so far it was going to be a tough match in a notoriously unhappy hunting ground for Cardiff, and things didn’t start well as Rhys Patchell’s wayward kicking boots returned. Three missed penalties, a mixture of short and wide, passed before it was fourth time lucky and we took the lead, which was extended not long after with the help of Patchell feeding Knoyle to round off a nicely worked move. 10-0 up and looking good, but yet again it didn’t last, as in increasingly typical fashion, we let a team back into a game. Firstly Mike Sherry touched down after Francis Saili’s looping pass out wide, before outside half Ian Keatley rather easily sliced through our defence. However, one thing these slips in concentration have created, distiller in the team by Wilson, is a fighting spirit. Patchell was everything with ball in hand he wasn’t off the tee, and a perfectly weighted miss-pass fed Richard Smith over in the corner, before a clean break, supported by Dan Fish, led to a quick recycling of the ball through the hands to Tommy Isaacs to shrug off two defenders and score.
One guess what happened next? That’s right, Munster were let back into the game! Sherry got his second of the game at the back of a driving maul, before Cardiff had a scrum on our 5 metre line. A very messy scrum ensued, and although it seemed like BJ Botha may have been driving inwards too much causing the scrum to wheel, but Ian Davies let it go and Jordan Coghlan touched down the loose ball over the try line. Patchell’s penalty with 10 minutes to go brought Cardiff to just a point behind and set up a tense finish. It was Munster who struck first in the crucial period, working an overlap well through the quick hands of Saili to Andrew Conway who scored. Cardiff put the pressure on in search of the try that would secure two bonus points, but to no avail, and a Jevon Groves yellow card put pay to that eventually. Another tough scoreline to take, and left a lot riding on the last game of the tour.
Full time: Leinster 35-27 Cardiff
So it all came down to a trip to Ravenhill for the last game in Ireland of the season, and only a win would secure the minimum six points that could really make the time spent on the Emerald Isle a success.
There was some good team news before the match as Aled Summerhill and Josh Navidi recovered from the knocks that caused them to miss the Munster match, while Cam Dolan was available for his first start after featuring for USA at the World Cup. Unfortunately there was also some bad team news as Gavin Evans and Kristian Dacey had both picked up injuries, with Adam Thomas and Matthew Rees not the most fantastic replacements by any means. Finally, there was some encouraging team news as the bench had three academy players on it in Ethan Lewis, Garyn Smith, and Jarrod Evans, who was in the squad for the first time in a Pro12 match.
Onto the game and there was a painfully familiar feel to the first half. Cardiff dominated early on, first Patchell putting a penalty into the corner, before slotting one over the posts from the resulting line out drive infringement. The game settled down and Ulster gradually started to dictate play, number 8 Nick Williams, who I shall refer to as ‘the coward’ throughout after his hit of that nature on Patchell last year, carrying strongly to get the home side quick ball. Fly-half Ian Humphries floated a lovely ball out wide that found Andrew Trimble over in the corner. However, the Cardiff fighting spirit was still going even this late on the tour and Patchell came back with two penalties. The fighting spirit though, is no match for an incompetent referee as it turns out, and just like at Leinster, Ben Whitehouse was again all over the poor decisions. The first, and real shocker, was a penalty given against Dan Fish for just competing a high ball with Trimble. This resulted in a line out in the corner, a catch and drive, and Turnbull went into the bin for pulling down the maul. Nick Williams picked and drove from the scrum, leaving scrum half Marshall to dive over from a yard, although whether he would’ve been stopped by the obstructed Patchell is a question for Whitehouse. Humphreys added the extras and the Ulstermen led 12-9 at half-time.
Coming out a man down in the second half wasn’t ideal, and Ulster made the advantage count. Packing down against seven men they won a penalty, put the ball into the corner, and another catch and drive took the coward over the line, despite the maul stopping about three times. Humphreys popped over the conversation and the home team were really on a roll. Five minutes later, and even though Cardiff wee back up to 15, Ulster were moving the ball freely and soon they were scoring again in the corner via top points scorer Stu McCloskey. Things were looking bleak, but then a spark of life. Richard Smith burst through the line from deep with Cam Dolan in support. The ball got recycled and went through the hands of Fish who was hit late, Patchell putting the ball in the corner. Cardiff brought the ball down from the line out but were stopped by Wiehahn Herbst, who then subsequently prevented Knoyle from taking the penalty quickly, so went and sat down for ten. Cardiff went back to the corner, Reed room the line out and the ball went back to Navidi who produced a finish Jonah Lomu would’ve been proud of, bumping off two defenders and sneaking in at the corner. On the front foot and a man up, but not able to make it count. Twenty minutes to make these weeks in Ireland properly worthwhile, but only a Patchell penalty to show for it, as well as Aled Summerhill making it three Whitehouse yellow cards for the night, meant it was a loss to round off the tour.
Full time: Ulster 24-17 Cardiff
So three points altogether with that losing bonus point, out of the six I set at the start of the Emerald Isle matches, means it’s a disappointing but not complete failure of a tour. The final stats of played four, lost four, conceded 118 points isn’t fantastic reading. However, 90 points scored, and three points on the league table gained show there are signs of improvement. If we can go to Ireland and score 22.5 points a game on average, then the attack is in very good shape, but conceding nearly 30 is a worry from the Hammett days. It’s early on in Graham Steadman’s Cardiff career but the scrutiny begins in earnest. I don’t want to be too pessimistic though, these games, particularly at Ulster, Leinster and Munster are arguably the toughest games of the year and they’re out the way. Also, the World Cup is over and the Wales players, as well as the new overseas signings, have begun to return. We go to Zebre next having already put 61 points on them in the first game of the season, and then Cardiff Arms Park is back open for business. Yes, the Irish tour could’ve gone better, but we can leave it behind if we push on before Christmas. Come on Cardiff!