Cardiff Blues made it four wins from four in the Pro12, but were made to work hard for it in a scrappy game out in Northern Italy. Tries from Blaine Scully, Matthew Morgan and Tom James were enough to catch the flight home with four points in the back.
Danny Wilson made six changes to the team that beat Glasgow at the Arms Park last week, with an entire front row change seeing Rhys Gill, Matthew Rees and Scott Andrews starting ahead of Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey and Fa’ao Filise, while Nick Williams replaced Ellis Jenkins in the back row, Steve Shingler came in for Gareth Anscombe at 10, and Blaine Scully started on the wing for the injured Alex Cuthbert.
A strong starting line-up was retained for what is often seen as a somewhat easier week against an Italian side, after memories of last year’s humbling 26-15 defeat at Zebre remained clear in the mind. Things did not start well though as Steve Shingler was penalised for holding on and the home side went 3-0 ahead.
Referee David Wilkinson was keen to make sure everyone knew the game was about him early on, whistling infringements all over the place. Zebre took advantage of getting the upper hand in the penalty stakes, going to the lineout and driving us from halfway to the 22, and then from the five metre line up to the try line to allow scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani over to score. The Cardiff maul defence living up to it’s very shaky name.
Shingler did manage to kick a penalty of his own between the Zebre scores, before missing another two and kicking his fourth attempt to make the score 8-6 as Cardiff got onto the front foot. By now Wilkinson had nowhere to go from his flurry of penalties and Olivierio Fabiani was sin binned, allowing Cardiff to actually take advantage of an extra man thanks to Blaine Scully’s first try of the season.
Shingler brilliantly put the penalty into the corner from just inside Cardiff’s own half. Nick Williams charged off the lineout but was held up, before Rhys Gill and Josh Navidi’s runs tied up defenders to allow Scully to run off Lloyd Williams shoulder and go under the posts in shades of Alex Cuthbert’s try against Glasgow last week.
Next up to cross Wilkinson was Josh Turnbull, who took a 10-minute sit down with the game threatening to descend into a referee induced farce. The Cardiff backline kept the attention on the rugby though as they went through phase after phase in and around the Zebre 22.
Navidi, Lloyd and Tom James all took the ball forward but could not get through the defensive wall, until Cory Allen produced a moment of brilliance to grubber kick through for Matthew Morgan to grab his first Cardiff try. A great piece of play to hopefully boost the confidence of the Welsh centre who has looked hesitant at times this season.
A Carlo Canna penalty slightly cut the half-time lead to 18-11, but with two tries in the bag and a slow start recovered from I’m sure there would have been some positivity in the half-time dressing room. Some errors to be cut out and a few words from Graham Steadman to solidify the defence, but no drastic changes needed.
The half-time conversations clearly worked as it was all Cardiff from the kick-off. Steve Shingler missed another penalty, missing out on nine points for the game before being replaced by Gareth Anscombe shortly after, while Zebre went back down to 14.
The change didn’t affect the attacking threat though as Lloyd Williams put the pressure on with a box kick to chase. Tom James was unlucky with the bounce but Sam Warburton lead the counter-ruck leaving the ball to roll out the side of the breakdown and the left winger had a clear run for his third try of the season.
For a moment things were looking good, but then Mr. Wilkinson struck again to regain the spotlight and send Rhys Gill to the sin bin. Zebre attacked with speed and got to the redzone quickly but were faced with strong Cardiff defence. Despite being pushed back over a number of phases they eventually spun the ball out wide to big outside centre Giulio Bisegni, who was too strong for Matthew Morgan and crashed over the line.
With the score at 23-16 the game was on a knife edge but the rugby was end-to-end. Zebre were looking for the result while Cardiff hunted the bonus point, and the visitors looked most dangerous. The Italians spilled possession on the attack allowing Rey Lee-Lo to hack the ball on and chase.
Unfortuantely, with the try line in distance, the Samoan decided to try and collect the ball earlier rather than going for the second kick and the opportunity was lost, as it was again with the ball back in Cardiff hands two minutes later. Possession was spun wide back to Lee-Lo but his final pass to Scully went astray, and our attacking play was over for the day.
It was down to Zebre to create the tense finish this week. They sent Cardiff back to a lineout on our own five metre line, pressurised Tomos Williams into sending a poor pass to namesake Nick who was forced into a knock-on. The Italians recycled the ball quickly, got two lucky bounces over Scully and Morgan, before Giovanbattaista Venditti went over in the corner.
Fortunately full-back Edoardo Padovani hooked his kick and Cardiff held on to secure the scrappiest of scrappy wins in Italy. For the third week in a row we were made to endure a tense last few minutes, but the team were again able to see out the 80 minutes and remain unbeaten this season, second in the table behind Ulster on points difference.
By no means a performance for the ages, but the best teams need to be able to win ugly just as well as they win beautifully. It’s also important to remember that travelling away to Italy is never easy, and especially for Cardiff where we have struggled over the past few years, putting the win into perspective slightly.
On to another massive home game next week as we welcome Leinster to the Arms Park. Hopefully we will pack out the stadium again and create another special atmosphere to witness the team go five from five in the Pro12. Come on Cardiff!!