Cardiff managed to record a comfortable victory over Newport despite a somewhat lacklustre performance at times on a sunny afternoon at the Arms Park. While the win was the minimum required there was a tinge of disappointment to the result as the try bonus point was missed out to really put the pressure on Edinburgh and Munster in the battle for 6th place in the Pro12 and European Champions Cup qualification.
Coming into the game both sides should have been riding on waves of confidence as Newport arrived on the back of an away European Challenge Cup quarter-final win at Gloucester, while we had won our last three games in the Pro12, culminating in an excellent win away at Llanelli two weeks previously. It was shaped up for a cracking game as the away side named a strong side despite a trip to Montpellier next week, while the Cardiff side was kept very similar to that which has been so successful recently.
The game got out of the traps quite quickly and it was in just the seventh minute that the first incident of note took place when Newport scrum-half Sarel Pretorius went to box kick the ball from behind a driving maul, only for Ellis Jenkins to appear and charge it down. A Hallam Amos juggle later and it was a Cardiff attacking scrum. The away side held strong through a number of phases before eventually Josh Turnbull evaded the clutches of Taulupe Faletau and got over the line.
Gareth Anscombe missed the conversion but was on target a few moments later to make it 8-0, however Newport were on the ascension. Hallam Amos got the Drags going with a successful up and under with the offload to Pretorius who was hauled down by Dan Fish. Amos was back involved a few phases later with a two-to-one overlap but completely botched it by ignoring Tyler Morgan outside him and being tackled by Rhys Patchell. Fortunately the possession resulted in a Dorian Jones penalty to save the young winger’s blushes.
Anscombe restored the eight point lead with half an hour played as the game struggled to break out of a midfield battle. Cardiff probably edged the territory and possession, but Newport still looked dangerous when on the attack, both sides defending their 22-metre line well and largely cancelling each other out. Amos was the constant thorn in our side as he wandered past Ellis Jenkins and Rey Lee-Lo on a kick return only for his final pass to let him down as Sam Warburton hacked the ball out of play.
As the talismanic Faletau left the field of play with a bad looking eye injury I imagine the Cardiff defence thought defending the five-metre lineout might be a bit easier, but lo and behold a few seconds later Pretorius had burrowed over from the back of the maul and despite another missed conversion the game was on a knife edge.
As the clock ticked towards half-time the action really came to life. Cardiff went through a number of quick phases and made good ground, eventually releasing Patchell down the right. His attempted offload back inside was patted away by Pretorius and referee Peter Fitzgibbon had no hesitation in awarding us a penalty and sending the scrum half for 10 minutes. A slightly controversial decision and one I wouldn’t be happy with if it were the other way round, but you can’t expect many good decisions from Pro12 referees!
With the man advantage we went to the corner and from the first phase the backs were involved Anscombe put an inch perfect chip over the top for the onrushing Lee-Lo to collect and score. Newport coach Kinglsey Jones bemoaned the fact that his sweeper was in the sin bin but I’m 99.9% sure that the Samoan would have outleaped Pretorius there anyway. The New Zealand born fly-half added the conversion and we went in 18-8 to the good at the break.
Cardiff started the strongest in the second half, straight from the off Rhys Patchell was on the attack but couldn’t quite provide the killer pass to first Tom James and then Jarrad Hoeata. It was the same story five minutes later as well from a scrum on halfway the ball went through the hands back to TJ. It was recycled to Anscombe who produced a lovely step back inside before finding Garyn Smith via Tomos Williams but yet again our top scorer on the wing could not keep hold of the ball.
We had to wait until 10 minutes into the second period for the first points as from a scrum awarded for Fitzgibbon getting in Tomos’ way, Tau Filise put the pressure on at tighthead and Anscombe slotted over the penalty. With a 13 point lead, a strong looking attack and a more and more depleted looking opposition the bonus point was in sight, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
First of all we had Sam Warburton trying to kick over the top, for the third game in a row, but the ball went over the dead ball line with one bounce after good work from replacement scrum half Tomos Williams. There was more pressure on the Newport line but just a lack of penetration meant we could not get close to the red zone and it was bloody frustrating to watch. Almost equal to watching Rhys Patchell limp off on his last ever Arms Park appearance with a hamstring injury. Hopefully it’s not his last time in a Cardiff shirt but I do fear the worst.
Anyway, while we should have been bonus point chasing and doing it comfortably, we managed to end up on the back foot for parts of the second half. If Newport had any grasp over basic handling skilss they’d actually be quite a good outfit but fortunately their simple mistakes and our good defence meant the match result was never in doubt. It also meant that the bonus point was never really on offer either though.
It took until five minutes from time when a Newport penalty allowed Anscombe to put us into the corner. From the lineout the ball went through the phases and Josh Navidi was so close to reaching the line. The ball came back and Sam Warburton whipped it wide to Ellis Jenkins but the flanker spilled the ball as he reached over Rhys Buckley.
The final play of the game eventually coughed up the third Cardiff try of the afternoon as we turned the ball over on our own line before putting the ball through the hands of Rey Lee-Lo to stretch his legs out wide. The offload to young Harri Millard put his on the way and his chip over the top bounced kindly for Josh Turnbull who returned the ball to the Wales U20 centre to be brought down. The quick recycle found Anscombe via Garyn Smith and the Wales international capped a fine solo performance, with the conversion bringing up 18 points for the day.
Impressive performances from Sam Warburton, looking back to his best for Cardiff, Tomos Williams off the bench, Garyn Smith who’s maturing a lot recently and of course Gareth Anscombe who takes home the man of the match award. Couldn’t help we were trying to force the attacking too much and chasing the bonus point has actually backfired on us. A solid performance overall though and we never looked like letting the lead slip at any point.
So not the bonus point win we needed to really keep the pressure on Munster and Edinburgh above us, but the four points certainly keeps us in the hunt. Munster are probably the favourites now as they finish with two home games against Edinburgh and Llanelli, not easy games by any stretch but home advantage adds a lot. Edinburgh obviously have us at home to finish after that, while we head to the Milennium Stadium for Judgement Day and the Ospreys next. Still plenty to be played out I’m sure, all we can do is keep winning.
I’m sure we’ll have to step back up to the level we saw in the games previously to beat Llanelli and Munster if we want to challenge for that sixth place, as Ospreys will be right up for JD. Two weeks off now to recharge the batteries and refocus will do the squad a world of good and get them ready for that. The backbone we’ve developed under Danny Wilson is admirable and hopefully it’ll show against the O’s again. Whisper it quietly, but we’re only five points behind Llanelli! Come on Cardiff!!