Cardiff fell to a disappointing loss to the Ospreys at Judgement Day IV as hopes of sixth place and a Champions Cup appearance next season went out the window. It effectively ends the season with a game to go but should not be seen as a failure by any means. To only lose interest in a season with a week left is something we have only dreamt of in the past few years, and is almost unbelievable when you consider our position in November.
Danny Wilson can take great credit, along with his backroom staff, for turning those fortunes around but our head coach was dealt a tough hand this week when key players from the spine of the side, Lloyd Williams and Rhys Patchell were ruled out through injury. The squad looked weaker as a result and then to add insult to injuries, Tom James was declared unavailable on the morning of Judgement Day as his wife went into labour. What a time for it to happen! (Congratulations Tom and partner on the birth of future Cardiff legend Teddy by the way.)
Anyway, squad problems aside a job was still there to be done and we looked pretty nervy about it from the start as we kicked away good ball from our own 10 metre line off the kick-off. The Ospreys had the first meaningful attack from a lost Matthew Rees lineout but the defence held strong and eventually forced a knock on, with Gethin Jenkins doing a job on Dimitri Arhip at scrum time.
Off the resulting penalty lineout we had our first proper attack but Gareth Anscombe chose the wrong option to chip through straight to Dan Evans who cleared. Off the next lineout the ball went flat to Anscombe who took Rhys Webb with him and trapped him on the wrong side of the ruck. The Kiwi-born fly-half duly scored the first points of the afternoon.
The huge positive of the first half was the effectiveness of the three natural number 7s, who really worked as a team for the first time. We’ve seen flashes of individual brilliance over the last few weeks but there were moments on Saturday when the trio were unplayable, such as when Sam Underhill was tackled and challenged by Sam Warburton, before Ellis Jenkins arrived to secure the turnover, or when all three were ready to meet Dan Biggar after he took a high kick. A fantastic sight and one I hope to see a lot next season.
Aside from the breakdown work the first half was a real battle and it took 25 minutes for the first real attack to be seen. The Ospreys went to the corner from a penalty but we secured a scrum turnover and it was from that defensive set piece that it started to unravel. Josh Navidi went to run off the back but Nigel Owens penalised Lewis Jones for ‘blocking’ Rhys Webb. The away side went for the scrum again and James King appeared off the back to wander over for the opening try.
A few interesting points from that period of play as, firstly, from the try scoring scrum Rhys Webb was blocking Lewis Jones in exactly the same way as Jones was penalised for. Then two wrong tactical decisions from Cardiff players as Ellis and Navidi both stayed down in the scrum rather than peeling off to defend the openside, and Aled Summerhill was dragged to the blindside by a marauding Ben John, both of which left a huge hole for King to attack.
Dan ‘the assistant referee’ Biggar kicked the conversion but Cardiff were immediately attempting to match the West Walians. Tommy Isaacs, drafted in last minute for TJ, found a little bit of space cutting in from the left but chose to keep hold of the ball rather than look for support coming from Jones. Possession was recycled quickly out to Rey Lee-Lo with half a yard on the right wing but a last gasp ankle tap halted the centre’s dangerous progress and meant a shovelled offload to Garyn Smith was easy to push into touch.
It came down to two Anscombe penalties in the last 10 minutes sent Cardiff in 9-7 to the good at half-time after a fast and bruising first half that saw Ellis Jenkins in the blood bin and Sam Warburton subbed off with a shoulder injury. Very bad news on the day for us and for Team Wales heading into the summer.
Back to the action and flying out the traps were the Cardiff Blues. Within a minute we were camped on the Ospreys try line and a bit of patience was required. Phases were used up trying to batter through the defensive wall but eventually it created half a yard for the increasingly vital Anscombe who threw a pearler of a double miss-pass over two onrushing defenders for Aled Summerhill to score from the right.
Anscombe missed the conversion with a really poor kick but made up for it a few minutes later with a penalty after a really strong scrum. Danny Wilson’s choice of Matthew Rees over Kristian Dacey vindicated as he pushed the Ospreys back with the other old boys Gethin Jenkins and Fa’ao Filise.
At 17-7 we seemed to be sitting pretty but we game management was sadly lacking. From a defensive scrum on our own five metre line we really should have been coming off the back with Navidi before clearing. Instead our number 8 tried to flick the ball out to Lewis Jones which was never going to go well and down the ball went. A nice attacking base from the Ospreys and soon the ball was shifted wide to Hanno Dirksen one-on-one with Tom Isaacs who got his head on completely the wrong side and Ospreys were right back in it.
So back in it were they that five minutes they were ahead. Garyn Smith spilled the ball deep into the Ospreys half and young centre Owen Watkin was on hand to make good yards. Gareth Anscombe made a good tackle and when Rhys Webb chipped over the top a phase later all seemed under control as Fish let Isaacs sweep up the loose ball. However the winger never even got close to it and up popped Watkin again to claim it and feed Dirksen for try number two.
Momentum seemed well and truly with the away side as Dan Fish managed to flick the ball into touch from a Dan Evans kick. Good field position and a seemingly very dangerous attack when Josh Matavesi wandered past a tired Filise in midfield. However the offload went straight to substitute Manoa Vosawai and within 30 seconds Josh Navidi had the ball in the Ospreys 22. The dreadlocked back rower powered out of one tackle and then turned the after burners on to get past three other defenders and over the line.
The game was swinging back and for like a seriously fast pendulum and it wasn’t stopping yet, much to the delight of the large crowd who were being entertained by the best the Welsh pro clubs had to offer. As the game crept into the final 10 minutes there was a further twist to take place when Nigel Owens, rather unfairly I would say, penalised Kristian Dacey for rucking from the side. The Ospreys were after the bonus point so went for the corner and it was off the back of a failed maul that Sam Underhill broke Tomos Williams’ tackle and dived over. Biggar’s conversion making it 24-26 at this stage.
Now, if anyone ever tells you rugby is a thug’s game played by intellectuals you can point them towards Ospreys replacement hooker Sam Parry for proof that is a lie. With his team just taken the lead he decided to so blatantly block Dan Fish from chasing the kick-off right under Nige’s nose that he had to be penalised. Gareth Anscombe got his 17th points of the day and the lead changed hands for the sixth time.
Unfortunately that would be Cardiff’s last points of the afternoon and the lead would change hands once more, not due to some enthralling open play, but a poor refereeing decision. The away side went through a number of phases grinding down the yards to the line. Dirksen was stopped just inches from getting a hat-trick and the ball came back to Rhys Webb with the Wales scrum-half improvising his trademark sniping to dive over on the narrowest of blindsides. The only problem was his foot clearly on the touchline when he picked the ball up, overlooked by Nige and the TMO though.
Cardiff came back out bravely trying to attack from our own line with two minutes to go but it was far too ambitious and Manoa Vosawai ended up spilling the ball to give the Ospreys an attacking five-metre scrum. Rhys Webb took the ball squirting out the back and was too quick to stop. Dan Biggar’s conversion meant it finished 27-40 in the end, an unfairly large winning margin but probably not an undeserved victory.
That’s not to say we played badly at all though. The players put their bodies right on the line and I literally could not have asked for anymore effort or determination. Little pieces of skill went awry at times and we never quite developed our running game but those things will come in time. I was proud to be a Cardiff fan on Saturday and despite missing out on Champions Cup qualification I am still extremely excited for the future with this squad under this management.
Away from the result it was a really cracking match that was fast-paced, brutal in it’s physicality and had plenty of pieces of individual skill. Perfect conditions at the Millennium helped and I’m sure the large crowd would have been entertained. Whether that will mean increased attendances week in, week out I don’t know but I highly doubt. I’m not one to delve in rugby politics, but I don’t think Judgement Day really works.
The last word goes to an immense Cardiff effort though and I hope the players are proud of themselves and realise how we as fans appreciate the effort. One last game to wrap up the season next week in Edinburgh and after such a bruising encounter for some players and plenty with big international summers ahead I really don’t see the harm in leaving a few senior names at home and taking some fringe and youth players. We shall see though, as always, in Danny we trust. Come on Cardiff!!