Cardiff Blues secured a fairly comfortable Boxing Day victory over Newport Gwent Dragons at the Arms Park in a game that promised so much, but ended up delivering so little. Nevertheless, a first Pro12 win at home since September was a welcome sign after a dodgy few months of league form.
Head Coach Danny Wilson was able to recall Kris Dacey, Nick Williams and Alex Cuthbert back from injury, as Macauley Cook moved into the second row to replace the banned George Earle. There was still a team selection blow though as Tom James was forced to pull out on the morning of the game due to illness. Cory Allen started in his place with Garyn Smith moving onto the bench.
The recalled players, plus a full house at CAP, clearly boosted the team who sprinted out of the blocks. Newport fly-half Angus O’Brien was forced to kick the ball out on the full. From the attacking lineout Nick Williams took the ball on before more metres were made around the fringes. Eventually Lloyd Williams found Steve Shingler on the blind side who threw a dummy, brushed off Ashton Hewitt and managed to touch down in the corner.
The fly-half converted his own try for a 7-0 lead after two minutes, before Newport hit back 10 minutes later with a scrum penalty won against Scott Andrews and O’Brien did the rest.
The lead was restored by Shingler from the tee not long later as Cardiff got a fortuitous penalty for the blocking of Matthew Morgan as he chased a poorly executed up-and-under. After the last few weeks of being on the wrong end of refereeing decisions it was nice to get one at last!
Despite being ahead on the scoreboard, Cardiff struggled to retain possession and when Morgan was penalised for holding on Newport pushed us back into our 22. From the lineout they moved right and worked the blindside, where it seemed Rey Lee-Lo had perfectly lined up O’Brien, only for the fly-half to move low out of the way and the Samoan’s arm to catch him on top of the head.
Although the opposition player ducking out of the challenge didn’t help Lee-Lo, he hasn’t helped himself by bowing to the Pacific Island trait of tackling around chest height, which becomes head height as soon as the Newport player gets low. A few years ago, likely just a penalty. These days it’s a yellow card and 10 minutes to think about his technique for next time.
O’Brien recovered from the potentially fatal blow he made it appear to be, and kicked the penalty, only for referee Ben Whitehouse to become centre of attention again straight from the kick-off. Newport collected the ball and formed the ruck, as Alex Cuthbert was nearby and cleared out by Rynard Landman.
Now, it looked fairly inconspicuous initially, but as always slow motion replays made it look worse than it was. There’s no doubting it wasn’t the most intelligent move from Landman as Cuthbert wasn’t bound to the ruck and the clear out was overly aggressive, however a yellow card? Not in my book.
Shingler kicked another penalty to restore the seven point lead at 13-6, but Newport were next on the scoreboard as Cardiff lacking an outside back bit them harder than the away side losing a lock. As the visitors came forward into our half we were guilty of committing too many players to the rucks in midfield, eventually creating a blindside overlap needing Morgan to step up from full-back to plug the gap which Hewitt took full advantage of to kick in behind and collect for a try.
For the rest of the 10 minute period of 14v14 it was the Cardiff Blues show as we moved left-to-right looking for the breakthrough. Penalties and scrums came and went but we couldn’t get over the line until Kris Dacey took advantage of Ellis Jenkins being held up short, ripping the ball and spinning over under the posts to restore the lead.
It was pegged back slightly by an excellent penalty from halfway by O’Brien, before Hewitt threatened to put Newport ahead with a dangerous run only for it to be stopped by Whitehouse’s whistle as Lloyd Williams was adjudged to have completed a tackle on the winger. Another somewhat dubious one, but I still don’t mind!
With that attack over it was down to Cardiff to get the last score of the half as the advantage of having big ball carriers was evident as Nick Williams, James Down and Scott Andrews from the forwards, as well as Rey Lee-Lo in the backs, gained good front foot ball.
10 phases in, and despite it being the slowest ball of the attack, Shingler showed some great footwork to pass the solo blitz of Ed Jackson before brushing off Lloyd Fairbrother and drawing the full-back to release Josh Navidi over the line and under the posts. A simple conversion to take our fly-half to 17 points in 40 minutes and make the score 27-16 at the break.
Following half-time I don’t think I was alone in the ground in thinking that the second half had every chance of really kicking on. There was a possibility of a really entertaining 80 minutes of derby, good for fans and broadcasters alike, especially in front of a sold out Arms Park.
However those dreams were not realised, and soon we found ourselves 30 minutes into the second period with no further points on the board. That was not despite the best efforts of Cardiff though who turned down three kickable penalties to go for the corner, but three botched lineouts underlined again just how bad the white line fever is that we slip into suffering from.
The saving grace was a decent defensive performance giving Newport little chance to attack the lead, but in hindsight kicking some of the early penalties of the second half to make the lead safe would have been a better tactic. This way there may not have been as many bungled attempts at the bonus point try, which largely felt forced due to the slender lead held at the time.
As a whole the game did not really have any flow to it, largely due to some inconsistent whistle blowing from Whitehouse who seemingly could not decide if he was going to let players compete at the breakdown or blow up as soon as a player held on to the ball for longer than a second.
The first actual opportunity to score for Cardiff came on 65 minutes when Steve Shingler was hit by a deliberately late tackle from Nick Crosswell, but Matthew Morgan had to take over the kicking duties and pushed the chance wide.
Newport came into the game a bit more in the final 10 minutes as they sensed an opportunity to gain the losing bonus points that have become their speciality in recent years, however some excellent turnovers from Sam Warburton and Ellis Jenkins, as well as strong defending generally.
Eventually the game limped to it’s conclusion and I don’t think I have ever felt so deflated after a win. Nevertheless, there were building signs, especially from the first half. Phase play was good, Shingler is stepping up to the job of number 10 nicely, while the revival of Nick Williams has come at a welcome time. The main positive without question though was the defensive work.
A first Pro12 win at the Arms Park since the visit of Glasgow in September is sure to provide some sort of confidence boost, but I’m sure the players will be well aware of the requirement to step up their performance level ahead of a tough away trip to Llanelli on New Year’s Day. Come on Cardiff!!