It’s two wins from two to start the European Challenge Cup campaign for Cardiff Blues this season, but there was mixed emotions at the Arms Park after Friday night’s win over Section Paloise as the bonus point try could not be clinched to extend the lead at the top of pool four.
Danny Wilson rang the changes for the visit of Pau, well known as a French side who completely disregard the Challenge Cup as a competition. Kirby Myhill made his first start after injury, while James Down appeared for the first time in the senior set up this season. In the back line the big hitters of Gareth Anscombe, Rey Lee-Lo and Tom James were all rested as Steve Shingler, Garyn Smith, Cory Allen and Blaine Scully were given starts.
It would be a number of those backs combining just two minutes into the game to create the first score as Shingler take the ball to the reshuffled Pau backline. The pass went flat to the outside into the hands of Allen who went clear before finding Dan Fish on his outside. The full-back carried it on, sucking in the last defender, before feeding Scully to go over in the left hand corner.
Shingler clinched a cracking conversion from the touchline and extended the lead with a penalty not long after as Cardiff dominated early possession but struggled to get any territory. This lack of cutting edge came back to haunt the home side as Pau gained a penalty, turned down the kick at goal and went for the corner. The driving maul was held up, but Daniel Ramsay came on the crash ball to go over.
The conversion was butchered by the French team but they weren’t deterred as they dominated the remainder of the first half. A number of very kick-able penalties were turned down as they went repeatedly to the corner but could not make their visits to the red zone count as a mixture of Cardiff defence and Pau attacking errors hindered them.
Cardiff weren’t immune to errors of their own though as a number of passes failed to find hands in decent attacking positions and handling errors contributed to more turnovers than would be expected. Pau were well organised in defence and we struggled to break them down, while a number of poor kicks contributed to an increased period of pressure.
The only highlights from the rest of the first half really were a Steve Shingler penalty to add another three points to the scoreboard, and a sickening hit from Fa’ao Filise on Pau tighthead Jeremy Hurou which left the Frenchman out for the count, while the King of Tonga just walked off. Quite incredible, the hit and the noise it made. Anyway, 13-5 at half-time and much improvement needed.
There was certainly an improvement to the scoreboard in the second half. Scott Andrews replaced Filise and added some energy with a half-break. A penalty was secured for offside and Shingler put the ball into the corner but nobody ended up jumping for the lineout, although Pau managed to knock the ball back over their dead ball line.
Maybe it was a master plan by Cardiff who took the ball from the back of the resulting scrum, with Lloyd Williams finding Shingler who fired another flat miss-pass across the line to feed Allen into a large gap on the outside of Pau’s midfield. The Wales international cruised across the line from 15 yards out for a timely confidence booster after a tough start to the season.
Cardiff looked on the up as Pau were seemingly disintegrating into a mire of unforced errors, with more territory resulting in more scoring chances for the home side. A scrum on the visitor’s 22 gave a good platform to keep the scoreboard ticking over 20 minutes into the second period.
With the set piece towards the middle of the pitch the backs set up with Shingler and Fish directly behind the scrum, and they switched to the blindside as the ball came back to Williams. Fish and Scully went on dummy runs against the all-at-sea Pau defence, who hadn’t covered the blindside, which were bought by the French defenders allowing Allen to ghost through again and step past the full-back.
Two tries on his return to the side after being dropped ahead of the trip to Ospreys will do the centre a world of good, as he acknowledged post-match, as well as give Danny Wilson a welcomed selection headache with the arrival of New Zealander Willis Halaholo imminent and Rey Lee-Lo in the form of his career.
Shingler kicked both conversions from Allen’s tries to make the lead comfortable and, with substitutes adding some fresh legs to the side, an assault on the bonus point try was required. However, what we got was somewhere just over 10 minutes, right until the final whistle, of Pau possession inside the Cardiff 22.
There was penalty after penalty as referee JP Doyle was insistent on penalising us every time Pau went close to the line, then scrum after scrum as the French attackers were repeatedly held up over the line. Doyle eventually lost patience with forcing himself to give a penalty on every set of phases, so selected Jarrad Hoeata completely at random for a yellow card.
With no time on the clock Pau did finally break the line thanks to centre Bastien Pourailly going over under the sticks and Thierry Lacrampe adding the extras. The big question following the game was ‘why on earth did we not just let them score 10 minutes before?’ There was a waste of a huge amount of time defending the line rather than getting on with securing the bonus point.
The defending itself was valiant and a great improvement on the other 70 minutes of the match, and the last two games in general, but pointless in terms of the game. Cory Allen stated post-match that he, and the coaches, felt the team got more out of the last 10 minutes defending than going for the bonus point, but I could not disagree more. We were comfortably ahead at the time and had a chance to put another point between ourselves and Bath before the double header in December.
Nevertheless a win is a win and another four points to the total keeping us top of pool four. There were definite glimpses of quality and it was handy to rest a number of key players ahead of a big derby with Llanelli as the Pro12 returns next week. Specific mentions for Cory Allen’s return to form, Steve Shingler’s passing ability and Seb Davies making his senior debut off the bench just 10 minutes into the game after James Down’s head knock.
Hopefully there is a bit of brushing up on the finer points of the game, and a review of on and off-field decision making at crucial points in the match. The signs do look good for Friday though and hopefully the first part in a repeat of last season’s double over our Turk rivals to the West. Come on Cardiff!!