Cardiff scored 17 points in the last 14 minutes to secure a very impressive victory against Ulster at the Arms Park. After an error strewn opening hour it was all change in the final quarter as, aided by strong performances off the bench, the team grew in confidence over a short period, and made it look easy in the end.
With the exception of Matthew Rees being selected over Kristian Dacey at hooker, it was probably a side the majority would have picked. The inclusion of Aled Summerhill at outside centre to replace the injured Cory Allen was a surprise but a very welcome one that signalled the attacking intent. On the opposing side, future Cardiff signing Nick Williams started at number eight for the visitors.
The opening half an hour was an incredibly tense affair littered with errors from both sides. Cardiff probably looked the stronger early on, particularly dominating a scrum that was a big confidence boost for young loosehead Brad Thyer making his first start, but Rhys Patchell could not capitalise from the kicking tee.
In an encouraging change from the previous few weeks we were looking to spin the ball wide and actually play some rugby. However the crucial last pass was often lacking and it felt like the players were almost trying too hard to keep the ball alive, looking for the miracle pass when going to ground and recycling possession was the better option. Chances for Rey Lee-Lo and Tom James went down in this way.
As the half wore on Ulster got their phases together more and more, their coming into the game being more than aided by some powerful Nick Williams runs. Eventually Salesi Ma’afu infringed at the breakdown and Paddy Jackson scored the first points of the game on 32 minutes. Aside from some solid looking scrums, Ma’afu was very disappointing in the loose throughout the first half and was withdrawn at half-time in favour of Tau Filise. Fitness is still the key issue for the Australian prop.
Five minutes later we were penned back in our half again and Jackson doubled the visitors’ lead, but with the last kick of the first period a fantastic long range kick from Patchell made it 3-6 at the break and we were in a strong position to regroup and come out fighting in the second half. Patch clearly was thinking the same and levelled the within two minutes of the second period kicking off.
However, the pendulum swung right back into Ulster’s favour not long after as in typical Cardiff fashion we threw things away for ourselves. Attacking in the redzone and looking for a way over the try line we started going backwards and then Tomos Williams went sniping, looked for the pop pass to Tom James that went straight to Franco van der Merwe. Offloads to Ruan Pienaar and Pete Browne eventually resulted in Manoa Vosawai infringing at the breakdown. Pienaar tapped and went, eventually feeding Sam Arnold who merely shrugged off Tomos, drew in James and fed Craig Gilroy to score.
A 6-13 lead but Cardiff displaying more of the fighting spirit that made the December/January run of form such a success. It was inspired by a player I’ve reserved a fair bit of stick for in recent weeks, but who stood up when it mattered today. Rey Lee-Lo was brilliant in attack, combining hard running on the crash ball was some beautiful footwork. Immediately after conceding the try he got us on the front foot, only to slip when he was about to break the line.
This kept the rest of the team trying to play rugby and soon we were inches away from scoring as Dan Fish took a quick lineout, Patchell took on the ball and gave the return pass to Fish who was only stopped by an excellent tackle from Stuart Olding. This was to be the Fish’s last contribution as he was taken of looking shattered in what was to be a significant move, Jarrod Evans his replacement meaning Patch went to full-back.
With just over an hour gone Patchell narrowed the lead to four points with his third penalty of the afternoon, before Jackson missed the chance to restore his side’s cushion as he pulled a fairly straight forward kick wide. This would prove to be a costly error indeed.
With just over five minutes left all my attacking dreams came true as Jarrod Evans took the ball to the line from stand off and fed Patchell hitting the line outside him. The pacey move continued as Lee-Lo broke the defensive line, sold Olding the dummy pass to Scully and turned back to find Patchell on his inside shoulder and with a clear run under the posts. Conversion kicked and the game was ours for the taking.
Would we suffer from a nervous five minutes of defence? Would we heck! The kick off was taken and the ball was worked straight back to Ulster’s redzone. The forwards took the ball through the phases marshalled by Lewis Jones, before he picked the pace up and found Josh Turnbull. A neat triangle attack was performed with Josh Navidi on the dummy/block run and Tom James sneaking around the back. He pulled in a defender and fed Ellis Jenkins who did the same to Aled Summerhill on the left touchline to touch down in the corner. Quite outstanding, just like Patchell’s conversion, and Cardiff won 23-13.
That final move was the icing on the cake that was the performance in the last 20 minutes. For the first time in ages I actually saw us do something that wasn’t pass the ball wide and hope, and just look what happened! If we played like that for even 60 minutes of a game we would destroy teams each week. Rey Lee-Lo and Aled Summerhill were very impressive in midfield, which is a very big positive for the future and may solve an issue that may have needed a new signing for next season, midfield strength in depth. Tom James looked very sharp (FAO Mr Gatland), while the forwards were on form as ever, particularly the back row.
The transfer stories for the next season of the day were that Rhys Patchell was very good at 10, but once again even better at 15. Meanwhile Nick Williams was very good as Ulster’s number eight, a very nice pass out of the back door a highlight, although he was matched by our own Manoa Vosawai. I can see an opinion piece forming there. Overall an excellent 20 minutes saved an encouraging performance from being a close loss to a very impressive win. Parts of our game to work on before visiting Glasgow next up, but much confidence to be taken most importantly. Come on Cardiff!!