There was a bonus-point win for Bath on Thursday night as Cardiff Blues slipped to second place in pool four of the Challenge Cup. The main talking points of the game though, not for the first time this season, revolved around refereeing decisions, or lack of them.
Danny Wilson had made three changes to the XV that won the reverse fixture five days before, with two enforced changes seeing the injured duo of Kris Dacey and Alex Cuthbert miss out, Kirby Myhill and Cory Allen their replacements. Meanwhile the experience of the returning Macauley Cook was preferred to young Seb Davies at flanker.
The danger would be Bath though as they recalled 186 caps worth of international experience thanks to names such as Taulupe Faletau, Francois Louw, George Ford and Jonathan Joseph. A different prospect from the last game was in store.
Bath would dominate the early possession and territory, but within two minutes there was a sense that the evening may be a long one for different reasons as French referee Alexandre Ruiz managed to miss a high tackle on Blaine Scully collecting a Lloyd Williams chip, and then penalised Rhys Gill for holding on despite Kahn Fotuali’i being clearly off his feet.
Despite the hosts keeping Cardiff pinned in our own half for much of the opening period, the defence looked in very good shape. There was no narrowing of the defensive line as we have seen in recent weeks, allowing first up tackling to be much better as two players were able to put in hits, rather than one-on-one situations being opened up easily in midfield.
Instead Bath went to the high kick more often than not, testing Matthew Morgan at full-back, but he was ably supported by Steve Shingler and some inaccurate George Ford kicking. Pressure was re-invited quickly though as, despite exit strategies partially working thanks to good carrying from Josh Navidi in particular, lengthy Williams box kicks straight to Taulupe Faletau were all too often.
Add to that recipe the referee allowing Bath to enter in the side at Cardiff attacking mauls and it was an uphill struggle. Still the defence held strong though, forcing handling errors from the home side in our 22. Eventually the pressure got too much as Sam Warburton infringed in a tackle, but fortunately England fly-half Ford managed to miss the easy penalty.
Cardiff’s first real attacking opportunity, aside from Morgan counter-attacks, came in the 20th minute when a Tom Homer mistake saw his kick go long from just outside his 22 and gave us the scrum. Halaholo made ground from the set piece towards the red zone, only for Francois Louw to go off his feet and allow Steve Shingler to open the scoring.
Soon following though was Bath’s first clear cut attack as George Ford spotted no cover and chipped for Ben Tapuai to race onto. Matthew Morgan made a good tackle and fortunately Fotuali’i was too close for the offload to stick, ending with a Cardiff scrum.
Although it seemed the attack was over for the hosts, with Mr Ruiz around it never really was, as from the put in Bath stepped straight to the left and wheeled the scrum until Faletau could collect the ball. Moving possession quickly from left to right the Cardiff defence wasn’t in place and a three-on-two overlap saw hooker Ross Batty run back on the angle to go under the posts.
The away side came back firing and Williams almost sparked an instant reply as he counter attacked from deep, allowing Cory Allen to work a two-on-one with Macauley Cook, but the final pass went forward. From the resulting scrum Fa’ao Filise was penalised and Ford kicked the penalty to make the score 10-3 after half an hour.
Despite the hammering in both possession and territory, Cardiff were clinging on in there and eventually returned to attacking as Morgan shrugged off one defender and fed Blaine Scully. The American made ground down the wing before bouncing off Fotuali’i in a collision that would actually end the winger’s evening with a head injury.
The ball was recycled and ground made by James Down set up Cook to go free into the Bath 22. Phases went by as Lee-Lo and Warburton both went close before quick hands from Allen allowed Shingler some space to get over in the corner, but a last gasp Tapuai tackle saw possession knocked on.
Referee Ruiz was playing advantage to Cardiff but Shingler’s penalty hit the left post before falling agonisingly on the wrong side of the cross bar before Bath cleared and the first half drew to a close at 10-3.
A tough half but one to take confidence from for sure. In fact the team may well have been a little disappointed not to score a try, but would certainly have taken being just seven points behind at the break. What we didn’t know it what was to come.
The game changed, and was won for Bath, in the first ten minutes of the second half. The first incident was inside a minute after the restart as Kirby Myhill, who just moments previously had performed an excellent leg lift tackle on Elliot Stooke, was yellow carded for a tip tackle on Dave Attwood.
For me it was a harsh card as, in the referee’s explanation, he described Myhill as lifting, turning and driving Attwood into the ground. I, however, can see no evidence of a drive at all. He lifts him above the horizontal there’s no question, and it was a penalty offence, but to see yellow for it seemed unnecessary at best.
Down to 14 and defending deep in our own half, Cardiff were moved about from flank to flank until Bath had drawn in enough defenders for George Ford to float a long pass out for Jack Wilson to finish past Lee-Lo and Morgan. Ford notched the conversion and things were looking ominous.
Not as ominous as the replays being shown on the big screen though as, between the try and conversion, the referee was taking a look at some possible foul play in the maul that started the move. Unfortunately for George Earle, as he looked to move through the mass of players, a finger brushed the eye area of Tom Ellis.
Now there’s no chance it’s intentional, but with the multiple replays and slow motion shots of the incident making it look considerably worse than it actually was, the referee was left with no choice by the letter of the law. You’d like to hope that any further disciplinary consequences will be very minimal due to the clearly accidental nature of the eye contact, but I don’t hold much hope on that part.
That may seem like the end of the game changing moments, especially if you read the match reports of Bath or the covering media, however straight from the kick-off Bath lost possession, Lloyd hacked on and eventually forced the hosts to touch down behind their own line. A 5m scrum and step up Alexandre Ruiz with a mind boggler.
First scrum, Cardiff lead by Matthew Rees and assisted by stand-in flanker Cory Allen, smash Bath who wheel to the left. Cardiff penalty. Second scrum, Cardiff smash Bath who wheel to the left. Cardiff penalty. Third scrum, Cardiff smash Bath who wheel to the left. Bath penalty.
A quite remarkable piece of bottling from the referee who was clearly aware that a third Cardiff penalty would have resulted in a yellow card to Bath and penalty try. With half an hour left that would have made it 14 v 13 and kept us in bonus point range, but instead we faced being 14 points behind with a two-man disadvantage.
That of course was always going to end in tears and Bath set about taking advantage. First former Cardiff player Aled Brew scored after neat offloads from Ford and Jonathan Joseph released Faletau, although the final pass from Fotuali’i had more than a hint of forward about it. Three days with the TMO and a lot of poor camera angles proved inconclusive.
Ross Batty secured the bonus point by picking off a Nicky Robinson pass rushed by Bath’s superior defensive numbers, before right at the death Francois Louw took advantage of a tired back field defence from Cardiff to turn over the ball and give Elliot Stooke the easy run in to finish off the scoring.
Despite all that the away side were still disappointed not to come away with a try in the second half. Macauley Cook made a nice half break before forcing an offload, while he was also involved in some neat inter-play with Lee-Lo and Ellis Jenkins to release Morgan.
Two periods of play, both including 5m attacking lineouts, also ended with handling errors as yet again there was a sever case of white line fever amongst the Cardiff ranks. Except on one occasion where Nicky Robinson certainly appeared to have touched the ball down over the line. Despite the television coverage replaying the incident, neither the referee or the TMO were aware of it, or perhaps they were and didn’t fancy checking. Who knows?
All in all a disappointing evening over the bridge, and unfortunately I once again find myself writing about how questionable refereeing decisions have had a big impact on the game. Having said that, there is a similarly deja vu aspect to the continuing try scoring issues that we are having from within the red zone.
On a positive note there were excellent individual performances from Macauley Cook and Josh Navidi, while Matthew Morgan and Cory Allen have noticeably grown in confidence over the last week.
There’s a welcome rest period now until the first of the festive derbies when we welcome Newport to CAP on Boxing Day. A good chance for the players involved over the last week to recover, for the injury list to decrease somewhat and for the wrongs of Thursday to be put right. Let’s have a big backlash, come on Cardiff!!!!