There was a dramatic return to form for Cardiff on Saturday as a distinctly disappointing Bath side were swept aside comfortably. The win maintains an unbeaten record in this season’s Challenge Cup and signals our first home victory since October and the last set of European matches.
On paper the game was not setup to be much of a spectacle. Cardiff were looking at a list of 14 injured players, including the likes of Tom James, Gareth Anscombe, Josh Turnbull and Gethin Jenkins, while Bath had Matt Banahan, Anthony Watson and David Denton missing, as well as resting first team players George Ford, Taulupe Faletau and Luke Charteris.
Add the list of those missing to some miserable Welsh weather, and the fact that the Challenge Cup is a distinctly second rate competition not awarded the luxury of television coverage or a Television Match Official, it wasn’t exactly the most enticing encounter.
Danny Wilson managed to cobble together 23 fit players, with Matthew Morgan starting in the back three to replace Tom James, Rhys Gill came in for Gethin Jenkins, while Sam Warburton returned to the back row alongside young Seb Davies who made his first start in a senior competition, as Ellis Jenkins and Josh Turnbull were unavailable.
Brad Thyer, Jarrad Hoeata and Cory Allen were all called onto the bench, with Kirby Myhill having to provide back row cover as Cam Dolan was ruled out due to regulations on non-Kolpak players.
The conditions were clearly going to play a major factor on the afternoon’s proceedings and inside two minutes a mistake from England winger Semesa Rokoduguni saw him drop the ball into a retreating, and offside, team-mate. Steve Shingler took the chance to open proceedings with a well-taken penalty.
It was the Cardiff fly-half who really ran the show early on with a magnificent range of kicking pinning Bath back inside their own half, and with the visitors not able to clear their lines to the same effect it was giving some good counter-attacking platform.
Matthew Morgan was looking dangerous and turned provider for Blaine Scully to run a beautiful line and break through Bath’s defence. Despite being brought down the away side infringed at the breakdown allowing Shingler to double the lead as Cardiff opted to kick for the posts rather than going for touch as they have done too often in previous weeks.
As the first half reached the mid-point the match became a battle of the scrums with particularly Bath making a number of handling errors in the slippery conditions. Rhys Gill was the loser in the first set as away tighthead Max Lahiff’s short bind forced him to go to ground, allowing Tom Homer to put the West Country side on the scoreboard.
However the next time Gill was victorious as he worked out Lahiff and turned the screw. Shingler made it a hat-trick of penalties, with the scoreboard showing 9-3 after 25 minutes.
Both sides had opportunities to break the try deadlock before half-time, with Morgan doing well to halt Max Clark after the Bath centre found an easy route through Cardiff’s midfield, and a clever offload to Matt Garvey was nullified by an unfortunate trip from the away captain.
Cardiff had the best chance for a try though as the turnover from that Bath attack inside our 22 turned into a kick chase as Willis Halaholo, who impressed with his footballing ability all game, spotted there was no full-back and chipped ahead. Clark went back but couldn’t hold onto possession allowing the lively Alex Cuthbert to hack on but he was brought down short and with neither Halaholo or Josh Navidi able to move the ball wide we were eventually pinged for holding on at the ruck.
Steve Shingler had a chance for a fourth penalty but the kick from an unrealistically distance fell short. Despite this, and the occasional dodgy kick from hand, Cardiff had by far the better half thanks largely to Shingler’s game management, but with the scoreline still close there was still plenty of work to do in the second half with Bath surely to come out firing.
They did indeed start the stronger, mounting the first attack of the half and going through a few phases in the red zone, however another handling error allowed Rey Lee-Lo to break away free. The Samoan centre was unable to find Cory Allen on his outside though, who had come onto the wing for the hobbling Blaine Scully, with Scott Andrews replacing Fa’ao Filise in the other early change.
It was the Cardiff fly-half who would be the key man, in slightly fortunate circumstances, as the first try of the game was eventually scored 10 minutes into the second half. Receiving the ball on Bath’s 10 metre line he had few options on the short side but stayed calm, a rarity amongst our players in recent weeks, turning right then spinning left as the away defence were left bamboozled and parted like the red sea.
Finding Cuthbert on his soldier the winger took the ball close to the line before offloading to Halaholo but the centre was stopped short. However yet more uncharacteristic composure saw the ball shifted from right-to-left across the width of the police and eventually Matthew Morgan was rewarded for his best performance in a Cardiff short so far with a try.
Shingler missed the conversion but he was back on the tee just five minutes later as Cardiff scored their second try. A high kick was not dealt with by Bath full-back Homer who allowed the ball to bounce into Sam Warburton’s arms. Our captain for the day ran clear before turning into a fleet footed winger as he tried to step past Rokoduguni in the most unlikely play of the day.
The ex-Army winger managed to get a tap on Warburton to bring him down but again the ball was recycled quickly and eventually Cuthbert marked his return to form by carrying three Bath players across the line in a somewhat comical manner, but it was one of the most celebrated tries that I’ve seen at the Arms Park as there’s always been a desire for Alex to do well at Cardiff.
Shingler’s conversion made the game safe at 21-3 with 25 minutes to go and a bonus point was almost in sight, but successful attacks eluded Cardiff for much of the rest of the game. Cory Allen, Seb Davies and Rey Lee-Lo all tried to fashion half-breaks but as the rain fell heavier the game became more error-ridden than ever.
The one big plus point was the scrum under the guidance of replacement hooker Matthew Rees, which completely dominated Bath towards the end of the game and saved the reputation of the set piece which was due to take a further hit as the lineout was once again dodgy.
Individual performances of note came from Rhys Gill, who really met the challenge to step up into Gethin Jenkins’ shoes, Seb Davies, who kept the workrate up and the quality high on his first proper start for Cardiff, Steve Shingler, who guided us around the field masterfully and showed off a magnificent range of kicking despite the odd loose one, and finally Matthew Morgan, who was solid in defence and even better in counter-attack.
A special nod to Alex Cuthbert though who was on the most part back to his destructive best. He was hungry for work, offering a carrying action and making plenty of supporting runs, which eventually resulted in a more than deserved try. My man of the match for sure.
There was just time left with two minutes to go for Scott Andrews to masquerade as the arch-poacher. Cardiff trundled up to Bath’s try line but were turned over at the last. However, with the ball placed back over the try line from the ruck, Andrews snuck in perfectly to simply apply downward pressure and referee George Clancy awarded the try.
A final kick from Shingler saw him to 13 points for the day and left a convincing final score of 28-3. A result which certainly underlined just how poor Bath were, a massive disappointment in fact, but that’s not to take away from Cardiff’s performance as the players dominated tactical kicking and at the breakdown, expertly targeting the frailties of the visitors to run out comfortable winners.
Our first win in any competition for five weeks, the first time we conceded less than 10 points since January, and the first time we played a full 80 minutes at CAP with 15 men since mid-September, were all positive stats and I hope the team can use this result as a real platform to kick-start a successful festive period.
Of course Bath will be a different prospect on Thursday night at The Rec, with Francois Louw, Luke Charteris, Dave Attwood, Kahn Fotuali’i, Taulupe Faletau, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Fruean all in line to be involved they will certainly be much stronger as they look to close the five point gap over them at the top of the pool.
However if we came away with a losing bonus point, especially if Bath are restricted to only four points, it will be a great success. Fingers crossed our injury list is massively reduced by then but, in reality, Newport at home on Boxing Day has to be the priority rather than rushing players back unnecessarily for Thursday.
If you want to come along on Thursday there are tickets available direct from Bath Rugby, and Cardiff Blues Supporter’s Club have limited seats left on their bus. Come on Cardiff!!!