As of February 14th the Pro12 table showed Cardiff sitting 9th, with only Newport and the Italian sides below them. We were only one point closer to Munster in 6th than we were to Zebre and requiring close to a miracle run in to finish anywhere near a respectable position.
However, things were looking positive. Despite a slight up and down winter we had 11 points from our games during the Six Nations period and were set to welcome back our Wales internationals who has escaped from the tournament largely injury free. This meant that by the time Munster and Treviso arrived at the Arms Park in late March we could re-introduce Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey, Josh Turnbull, Sam Warburton, Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Tom James across the two games.
The boost in quality saw two fantastic bonus point wins. Specifically against a strong Munster outfit who pushed all the way in a 37-28 victory. Despite being 20-11 and 27-18 up at different stages, when the Irish side came within six points with two minutes left I feared the worst, however young Jarrod Evans nailed a penalty with the final kick to even deny the visitors a losing bonus point.
On the back of that win confidence was really flowing and bottom club Treviso were owed a game after beating us in Italy just six weeks previously. Eight tries later and 56-8 showing on the scoreboard the revenge was complete and the team had played some of the best attacking rugby I’d seen from a Cardiff side in around six years.
The wins were a huge statement of intent that sixth place was not out of reach going into a trio of Welsh derbies in April. First up was the game we all want to win, but very rarely do, Llanelli away. Our West Wales rivals were challenging for the play-offs after a very successful season and retained an excellent record at home to Cardiff having not lost to us at Parc y Scarlets since 2010.
There was a difference in the Cardiff side of late 2015/16 though. A steely determination and a resolve that would not be lost in a big derby game. From nine minutes in we took the lead from Gareth Anscombe’s boot until the last points of the game when he converted his own try. A masterclass in game management from the fly-half controlling an all-round excellent team performance led us to a 22-28 win.
From that win we were riding high and when welcoming Newport, who were pre-occupied with a European adventure, it was more of a case of ‘how many will we win by?’. Over-confident perhaps, but not without reason. By now the side was very settled around a group 25-27 players with only minimal changes required to the line-up. There was no envy at all over Danny Wilson having to pick the squad each week when so many players were on form.
Despite the game again being the ‘Gareth Anscombe Show’ it wasn’t exactly the points party we had hoped for. After Josh Turnbull and Rey Lee-Lo tries in the first half the bonus point was very much on the cards, but a resilient Newport defence kept us out until the last minute of the second period when Anscombe crossed. It made the 28-8 scoreline more comfortable but dented hopes of sixth place slightly.
It basically came down to Judgement Day, both in terms of our season and the event. Playing against the Ospreys at the Millennium Stadium is a big occasion anyway but in terms of the season it was massive. There were some team concerns though as Lloyd Williams and Rhys Patchell both picked up injuries against Newport, while Tom James missed out with his partner due to give birth.
When Sam Warburton went off after 28 minutes it was a huge blow on top of those pre-game losses, but we still managed to get in 9-7 up at half-time thanks to Anscombe’s boot. The fly-half then turned creator at the start of the second period to send Aled Summerhill over, before Josh Navidi grabbed a well taken solo try. However, as tired legs set in Danny Wilson turned to a somewhat inexperienced bench.
With a back line containing four either first year professionals or academy players, as well as two academy props up front, leadership and game management somewhat deserted us. Ospreys began to flex their muscles and five second half tries with braces for Hanno Dirksen and Rhys Webb, as well as a Sam Underhill score, saw the away side eventually secure a 40-27 win.
Of course the main feeling post-match was disappointment as the loss spelled the end of our sixth place hopes. However to get to the second to last game of the season with that still a possibility was an incredible feat in itself. To lose it to Ospreys was a kick in the teeth, but the Swansea gloating lasted just a week as they lost to Ulster and we beat Edinburgh on the last weekend of the Pro12 season.
That win sent us seventh and almost perfectly summed up our season in 80 minutes. The game started very slowly and we spent all of the first half behind in the Scottish capital with only Rey Lee-Lo and Gareth Anscombe’s partnership providing a bit of try inspiration. However in five second half minutes Cardiff came from behind to claim the result thanks to Cam Dolan and Garyn Smith tries.
A high to end the season upon and finish just seven points off Champions Cup rugby. A huge amount of credit must go to Danny Wilson for totally revamping the club as a whole, and the the players and staff for buying into his vision. The squad seems a proper unit and the atmosphere amongst the players has greatly improved.
With a full summer of Wilson preparation, his own signings and his own squad to shape I think 2016/17 could be the most exciting season in a long while for Cardiff Blues fans everywhere. With a regular international window returning and no reason to leave the Arms Park for two months we have a real chance of at least making Champions Cup qualification. Without wanting to put too much pressure on the squad, I cannot wait to see what they can do in the new season. Come on Cardiff!!