Seven straight Pro12 defeats between September and November meant that by the time December rolled around there was very little festive cheer to be found in and around Cardiff Blues. Floundering at the foot of the table along with the Italian sides and still the worst performing Welsh regions it was looking bleak on paper, but after encouraging performances against Glasgow and Ospreys there was a minimal amount of extremely cautious optimism.
Things could only get better from an horrendous run of losses: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/201516-season-review-things-can-only-get-better/
The first match of the month came on a bitterly cold Arms Park Friday night where we hosted early season pacemakers Connacht. The team was largely unchanged from that which lost in Swansea the previous week, only Rhys Patchell returning through injury and Sam Warburton departing for the same reason. Sam’s misfortune meant Josh Turnbull started at 7 alongside Macauley Cook at 6, and with Manoa Vosawai at 8 the heavy big carrying boys put us on the front foot throughout.
Vos scored inside 10 minutes and Tom James’ quality finish in the second half, along with Patchell’s increasingly reliable boot, meant it was a 20-16 win. It really should have been more as the backs looked dangerous at all times, while the forwards were largely dominant but struggled to convert field position into points as driving mauls fell short and a lack of composure in the red zone led to missed opportunities.
With a slender lead Connacht threw the kitchen sink at us towards the end of the game but the defence looked much improved and held strong for an excellent victory over the league leaders, one that not many would have predicted. The momentum from this win was still rolling as we headed into the festive derby period with a trip to Newport first on the agenda.
As the side was becoming settled in it’s selection it was also being boosted by the return of key players from injury, Josh Navidi and Alex Cuthbert both starting this game while Cory Allen took a seat on the bench. This was having a real solid affect on the togetherness of the group which shone through in this hard fought and fast-paced Cardiff-Newport game.
Newport started better and it seemed like the game might run away from us as Ashton Hewitt’s try and Dorian Jones’ boot looked like our title of perennial Welsh derby bottlers would live on for another year, until 15 minutes from time when Lewis Evans slapped down the final pass before a clear try. 10 minutes in the bin for him and a penalty try gave us a lease of life which we duly acted on when the increasingly deadly duo of Fish and James linked up again to give TJ yet another try on his comeback year.
Rhys Patchell’s missed conversion stopped us from drawing level with five minutes to play but as the clock was just seconds away from turning red he stepped up to strike a penalty over won by that man James. With the pressure on the young full-back kicked it beautifully and we celebrated a stolen victory long into the night.
After the high of the previous Sunday it was time to go again on New Year’s Day as the fans dragged themselves to CAP in their droves with 11,000 people witnessing the second derby of the period, Cardiff v Llanelli. The Turks had begun the season well, benefitting from the World Cup period, and were high in confidence for their visit to the big City, but Cardiff welcomed back Cory Allen to the starting line-up as well as Dan Fish and looked very strong.
Like the previous week the action was fast and fierce, while also similar was the speed that Cardiff started with. Tries from Ken Owens and DTH Van der Merwe inside 15 minutes put Llanelli easily ahead, and only really a Cory Allen try kept the score at 10-20 on the break. However the fighting spirit of Newport remained to see Dan Fish and Kris Dacey cross in the second half.
A Gareth Davies converted try saw the away side retake a five point lead with just over 10 minutes to go but it was another last gasp effort from a resilient Cardiff under Danny Wilson which saw Alex Cuthbert cross under the posts. A much simpler winning kick followed for Patchell and the game was seen out comfortably. A bonus point try to wrap up the Christmas period and 13 points from our last three games, what a change!
By now the side was becoming pretty regular, the only changes coming from very healthy competition for places and to rest players. The settled nature of the team, plus the strong team spirit shown, was a World away from the chopping and changing of Ireland and the lacklustre performances as a result. As we entered 2016 the positivity was flowing and a big few weeks of European rugby awaited….