Cardiff narrowly missed out on a place in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals despite hammering Italian side Calvisano 74-6 on Friday evening at Cardiff Arms Park. Montpellier’s win over Harlequins in France meant that we finished third in the group with no hope of qualification, a case of so close yet so far in this season’s European campaign.
After two last minute disappointments in the previous games, with Montpellier’s late try depriving us of a win out there and Ben Botica’s penalty stealing an extra bonus point at Harlequins, it was a somewhat complicated mathematical formula that could see us qualify. However, what was certain was that we needed a bonus point win over Calvisano.
With that in mind Danny Wilson named a clever team, keeping it strong overall, but also picking a few players with a point to prove. Gavin Evans and Tavis Knoyle started at 12 and 9 respectively, having played bit-part roles in recent weeks, with American Cam Dolan starting at blindside flanker, and young Ethan Lewis in alongside namesake Dillon in the front row. It was also good to welcome back Gareth Anscombe and Sam Warburton from injury, just in time for the Six Nations conveniently, but still.
Effectively we blew the Italians off the park in the first half, playing with exactly the speed and intensity needed to stop the part-timers getting anywhere near us. Six minutes in and we had the first try with Tom James in the corner. By 25 minutes the bonus point was confirmed with Cory Allen crossing before turning provider for James again and then Navidi coming off the back of a rolling maul.
A Florin Vlaicu penalty was the only response from the Italian team to the wave after wave of Cardiff attack. It wasn’t long after the bonus point was confirmed that Tavis Knoyle performed an increasingly trademark tap-and-go, before a perfectly waited chip over the hesitant defensive line let Dan Fish collect the ball and turn on the afterburners. Anscombe missed his first conversion of the game to leave the score at 33-3 going into half-time.
After 15 minutes of bemoaning Montpellier leading at half-time in France, Cardiff came back out to make the win even more comprehensive in the second half. It could have been extended after just a few minutes had Alex Cuthbert not been running through treacle on the right wing with nobody between him and the line, but he was chased down and bundled into touch.
It was a whole 10 minutes into the second period before Calvisano bungled up a lineout to allow the arch poacher, Ethan Lewis, to pounce for his first senior try. Hopefully many more will come for Cardiff! That opened the floodgates once more as just two minutes after, Tom James scored the try of the night using his pace around the outside and stepping back off his left foot beautifully to secure his hat-trick.
Soon after the scoreboard was added to once more as Allen doubled up on tries thanks to an interception and then Cuthbert made up for his earlier lack of pace by finishing off a flowing move that started from Scott Andrews, through Warburton and Anscombe to the Wales winger.
Vlaicu did kick another penalty for the visiting side, but soon the Cardiff subs put them behind their posts again as Aled Summerhill crossed following good work from Lloyd Williams and Cameron Dolan, to be followed by Rhys Patchell and Macauley Cook scoring the 10th and 11th tries of the night. Final score Cardiff 74-6 Calvisano.
Obviously as we all know, Montpellier hammered an under-strength Harlequins, who I will now hate forever, consigning us to third in the pool. It was extra disappointing the next day as Newcastle beat Brive meaning we would have qualified, although we’d only have played Quins again, but that’s not the point.
Let’s hope at least that the players take great heart out of the fact that they ran two of the strongest teams in Europe, Harlequins and Montpellier, all the way to the last weekend of pool games. It will be a reminder next season that we can compete in Europe, and hopefully set the tone for the remainder of the Pro12 season which we can now concentrate on fully.
We welcome Edinburgh to CAP next weekend in the last game before the Six Nations, and we must be aiming for a big win to really create a platform to kick off from. The top six is nowhere near out of our reach yet, and if we play with the pace and passion of the last few weeks, coupled with the amount of home games still to come, this could yet be a great season. Come on Cardiff!!