Cardiff Blues suffered their first defeat of the season on Saturday night as they went down by a score to a strong Leinster side at the Arms Park. However, despite an game of rugby that was battled out between two very good teams, the game will unfortunately be remembered by most for refereeing decisions rather than anything.
Danny Wilson made four changes to the starting lineup that beat Zebre the previous week. The generally accepted starting front row of Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey and Fa’ao Filise swapped back into the team with Rhys Gill, Matthew Rees and Scott Andrews on the bench. The other change came in the back row with Ellis Jenkins picked ahead of Josh Navidi, while Dan Fish returned from injury to take a place amongst the substitutes.
It was hooker Dacey who made the first real impact on the game after five minutes when, after Blaine Scully had knocked a high ball back towards him, he produced a fine pick up and was brought down 10 metres from the line before Lloyd Williams made a half break to get Cardiff properly into the red zone.
The move was halted in the next phase though by referee Dudley Phillips penalising a home player for going off their feet at the breakdown. The first of many odd decisions between himself and touch judge Frank Murphy.
What wasn’t incorrect though was the ruling out of Leinster number eight Dan Leavy’s try, eventually. The away side got some good possession in the Cardiff half and worked an overlap on the blindside to release the back rower towards the corner. However excellent work from Scully saw him pull the opponent’s left arm into touch just half a second before the ball was placed down.
Although Scottish TMO Neil Paterson, who was a poor referee on the pitch, tried to award the try from the van it was overruled by Phillips who almost gave the score with the Leinster player already in place for the Cardiff lineout!
It was a sign of things to come though at the beginning of the first half though as Leinster stayed on the front foot and eventually won the penalty for Fa’ao Filise not rolling away. Irish fly-half Jonny Sexton stepped up for the kick and put the away side three points ahead, while Cardiff were forced to replace Sam Warburton with a suspected broken cheekbone and George Earle with an ankle injury.
Five minutes later there was a chance to double the lead as Gethin Jenkins was penalised at the scrum, but Sexton could not oblige on this occasion and was punished shortly after when Filise won a penalty at the ruck. Gareth Anscombe drew the scores level with 26 minutes on the clock.
And it would be the Cardiff fly-half again coming out on top in the battle of the 10s to finally blow the game wide open after a tense opening half an hour. Ellis Jenkins did what he does best and turned over possession in the tackle with Cook cleaning up the loose ball to Lloyd Williams. Anscombe hit the line at speed and targeted two forwards, as well as a cleverly placed Gethin Jenkins, to make the break and sprint over the try line.
The conversion was clinched and another penalty kicked three minutes later after centre Rory O’Loughlin didn’t not release the ball put Cardiff 13-3 to the good. It really should have been more at the break after Tom James’ break put us back on the Leinster try line, but 21 phases later there was no sign of any score and possession was lost right on half-time.
As the players returned for the second period there was a further two Cardiff changes as Fa’ao Filise and Matthew Morgan stayed in the dressing room, while on the pitch the second half started much the same as the first with Leinster on top.
An early Jonny Sexton penalty made the score 13-6, before Dudley Phillips took centre stage. Leinster fashioned a very good break through midfield with O’Loughlin making it into the Cardiff 22. Scrum-half Gibson-Park took the ball on and got isolated but Rey Lee-Lo was harshly penalised for being off his feet. A tap penalty was taken but Cardiff were harshly penalised for not being back 10.
Sexton went to the corner and although the initial lineout drive was held, Rhys Ruddock came off the back and made it over the line. Having seen the replay he was initially stopped short, and the ball was on the floor but not released, before he was dragged further forward and placed the ball over the line. Some might say it was a double movement. Harsh on Cardiff? What a surprise.
With Phillips not going upstairs the try stood and Sexton converted to draw the scores level at 13-13. A big last 25 minutes was in store and Cardiff seemed to be dominating mainly thanks to the introduction of Rhys Gill and Matthew Rees demolishing the Leinster scrum. Two penalties won got us down the field and the chance for Anscombe to go for the sticks but we pulled his kick wide.
Still Cardiff pressed though. Lloyd Williams offloaded to namesake Nick in midfield to get into the Leinster 22. Ellis Jenkins took the ball into contact and when Jamie Heaslip, from off his feet, handled the ball on the floor and caused it to come out of the side of the ruck, the refereeing team of Phillips and Murphy’s decision was a Cardiff knock-on. Something about being harsh on us comes to mind, again.
Then, with 10 minutes left, the biggest moment of the game. Leinster are making ground and up into the Cardiff 22. A long flat pass to Leavy puts them into the redzone and has Cardiff in scramble defence mode. Gibson-Park plays the ball quickly but his pass hits the retreating Josh Navidi. Penalty for offside and Navidi is binned, Sexton kicks the goal to make it 16-13.
There’s no questioning it was poor play from Navidi who was retreating too slowly and right in the attacking line. However, Gibson-Park’s pass is going nowhere as he has purposely hit the Cardiff player to get him penalised. Also, Navidi is only binned due to previous warnings about conceding penalties in attacking positions that weren’t penalties! Harsh on Cardiff. Shock.
14-men and against the refereeing but the never-say-die attitude is still amongst the team. A strong scrum in midfield gives Tom James a chance to stretch his legs and gets us into the opposition 22. The ruck is setup and ball presented, only for Jonny Sexton to cynically come around the side and kick the ball away. Obvious foul play penalised in an attacking position late in the game. ‘Yellow card’, you may say. For Leinster? You must be joking.
Gareth Anscombe goes for the corner, when perhaps the posts to get the scores level was the better option, and this thinking is confirmed as the ball is knocked on in the lineout drive. Still though the players fought, and soon we were back in the red zone thanks to Rey Lee-Lo’s half break.
Blaine Scully, who stood out as one of the players of the game, tried twice to break the fluorescent yellow wall, as did Nick Williams, but they were held up. The scrum, even with Blaine Scully at flanker, was massively dominant but no penalty was forthcoming.
In the end it came down to a spilled ball at the breakdown and Phillips, for one last hurrah, penalising Cardiff for going off their feet. 13-16 would be how the game would finish as Sexton kicked the ball into the South Stand and a bitter taste was left in the mouth as Cardiff fans left the Arms Park.
There were certainly areas of our play that could have improved and will need to be worked on in training, but as Danny Wilson said post-match, “I, and the players said themselves, certainly a number of decisions went against us.” An uphill battle throughout the game indeed.
So it’s now 11 defeats in a row against Leinster, but the consolation of a bonus point sees Cardiff retain their top four status in the Guinness Pro12 and add another layer of significance on next week’s first Welsh derby of the season away at Ospreys, as if it needed anymore! Let’s have a big win there to make up for Saturday, come on Cardiff!!