Cardiff Blues secured qualification for the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals with a bonus point victory over Bristol at the Arms Park. A sloppy first half was rectified by a resurgent second period, and it means a trip to Gloucester will await as the knockout rounds begin.
Danny Wilson made nine changes to the side which scraped a last-minute win in Pau last week, with a number of first team players returning to start in a timely manner. Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey, Nick Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Blaine Scully were all available, and were joined by Scott Andrews, Lloyd Williams and Rey Lee-Lo in the XV as they were recalled following being rested in France.
As you might expect with plenty of players coming back into the fold there was a fair bit of rustiness early on, as shown by Nick Williams making a trademark break from the back of a midfield ruck, before throwing a blind offload straight to the covering defender.
The attacking line looked much better straight away with Gareth Anscombe standing flat at first receiver with Steve Shingler in the inside centre position, but defensively it seemed there was a bit of mis-communication on occasion as too often the line was thinly manned, reducing line speed and allowing Bristol to run at single first up tacklers.
Missed tackles became more common as we seemed to be slipping back to pre-Christmas defensive patterns, but fortunately a bungling Bristol attack meant we weren’t punished as we probably deserved to be.
It took until just before the 20th minute for Cardiff to really get going, but when they did it paid dividends. Shingler made amends for an earlier missed touch from a penalty to find the corner, with Bristol pulling down the first driving maul and the centre again setting up a 5m lineout.
Nick Williams couldn’t quite get over from a choreographed set piece before the backs failed to make headway in the red zone as Alex Cuthbert and Rey Lee-Lo were both denied short. In the end it came to Kristian Dacey to celebrate a Wales Six Nations call-up and charge over for his third try in six games.
5-0 up after a lacklustre 20 minutes, and soon Cardiff pulled away thanks to Gareth Anscombe. Nick Williams gave the ball away with another unsuccessful offload attempt in midfield and Bristol looked to take advantage. However, a choreographed pass from Bristol’s flanker Nick Koster was picked off by our fly-half to sprint home from inside his own half.
Shingler kicked the conversion on the second try for a 12-0 lead, and was back off the tee on the half-hour mark as Tusi Pisi’s interception breakaway was called back by referee Adamson for an offside infringement.
Comfortably in the lead it seemed that Cardiff were cruising at this point, and it was showing in the play particularly defensively as Bristol were easily making yards on each carry. In the end it allowed scrum-half Andy Uren to wander through a large gap around the fringes and chip over Matthew Morgan, benefitting from a very fortunate bounce before offloading to Jordan Williams a yard out.
Within 10 minutes Bristol were right back in the contest as Cardiff attempted to spin the ball wide but the away side’s blitz defence put pressure on Shingler who’s pass was intercepted by Williams. His pass inside didn’t find the hands of Jack Tovey, but the centre was able to volley the ball on and collapse on top of the ball over the line.
The rub of the green for Bristol on both occasions, but it’s no more than Cardiff deserved really as they took their foot off the gas and allowed the away side back into the game as shades of recent Pro12 form returned.
15-14 up at half-time but it’s difficult to imagine Danny Wilson was a happy coach, and post-match interviews from the players seemed to confirm that. Despite learning that Newport’s loss in Brive had put us through to the knockout rounds regardless of our result, there was still a step up in performance required for personal pride more than anything.
In the end it was down to none other than Alex Cuthbert to set the tone for the second 40 minutes as he set off on a vintage Cuthy rampage down the right wing, making at least 15 metres and leaving Bristol defenders strewn down the touchline.
The front foot ball set up an attack that seemed to be over when Bristol secured the turnover right on their line, but a poor clearing kick made them few yards and from the resulting lineout Cardiff were able to quickly move the ball across the field for Matthew Morgan to grab a poacher’s finish.
At this point it seemed only inevitable that the bonus point try was coming, but Cardiff tired to unnecessarily force the attack and a few handling errors crept back into the game. Eventually the phases were worked to allow an overlap of backs on the left hand side, but Rey Lee-Lo’s final pass was picked off by a gambling Jordan Williams to run the length of the field to score under the posts.
As Shingler missed the conversion from the third try, Bristol were actually in the lead for the first time during the encounter, however the Cardiff kicker notched an excellent penalty from out wide to make the score 23-21 with 20 minutes still on the clock.
From that point onwards it was all Cardiff, starting with the ever impressive, and increasingly heroic, Blaine Scully making yards where he had absolutely no right to in midfield before offloading to Tomos Williams on his shoulder.
The scrum half was brought down short but the ball recycled to go right and Rey Lee-Lo seemed to score in the corner. However, referee Adamson had blown up already, deeming a fumble in midfield to go forwards, but go back for a penalty to Cardiff from the initial breakdown where replacement Bristol hooker Max Crumpton was sin binned for killing the ball.
Cardiff managed to mess up the lineout from five metres out, however a moment of magic from Matthew Morgan made up for that as he collected the clearing kick just inside Bristol’s half, setting straight off on the counter as he isolated a forward in the defensive line and, using Rhun Williams’ support run, threw a dummy for the breakthrough. Sheer speed eventually saw him over the line as Thretton Palamo was nowhere in catching him.
I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’ve been frustrated with Nipper over the past few months, with high ball and defensive frailties on show at times, but he is the most dangerous counter attacker that the Arms Park has ever witnessed, and moments like his second try are worth the entry fee alone.
The last word very nearly went to Morgan as well, with Bristol suffering from being a man down the full-back was in heaven as he picked another gap from deep, but the back field defence of the away side covered. He didn’t panic though, and got his head up to find Sam Warburton supporting his inside shoulder for the flanker to cross the line.
In the week it was announced he was relinquishing the Wales captaincy I’m sure the try would be a nice confidence booster heading into the Six Nations, and a timely reminder that he is more than just a world class operator at the breakdown. As it happened, this fifth try would wrap up the scoring as Shingler’s conversion made the score 37-21.
It’s possible that we may even have scored a few more tries not for some wayward attacking late in the game as a few players ran out of puff, but a first try bonus point win since the opening day of the season was a welcome result. Hopefully scoring five tries against non-Italian opposition for the first time since December 2015 will be a nice confidence booster.
With the qualification already secured thanks to Newport’s loss, the win gave us a few options about who we might play depending on results elsewhere. In the end it came down to Sunday afternoon’s game and Stade Francais winning against Harlequins meant we avoided Ospreys and now have a trip to Gloucester to look forward to.
Hopefully the win on Saturday can be the start of a run of results, with the senior players now getting a few weeks off to regain their match fitness fully, and come back to take advantage of Cardiff not losing an extortionate number of players to Team Wales call-ups.
Building up to that Gloucester match it would be great to see the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Ellis Jenkins and Tom James back fit, and George Earle back from suspension, to create some real competition for places and give the fans a cup run that we really deserve after the form of the last few years, never mind in recent months.
Saturday’s second half performance is a great basis to work off. Big carrying from the likes of Josh Navidi and a resurgent Jarrad Hoeata, the speed of Tomos Williams at scrum-half mixed with Gareth Anscombe’s flat position at first receiver and creative flair, the balance of Steve Shingler at 12 and a fantastic return to form of Alex Cuthbert are all good signs, amongst plenty of others.
There’s parts of the game to work on, the attacking breakdown work was poor in the first half, the scrum was under pressure throughout and the lineout let us down on multiple occasions, but it’s much easier to rectify small areas on the back of a win, rather than conducting comprehensive reviews after yet another disappointing defeat.
The Anglo-Welsh Cup returns over the next few weeks to allow some of the younger and fringe players the chance at a decent amount of game minutes, and also those senior players who’ve played a lot over the last two months some time to rest up before Pro12 action returns on Sunday 12th February with the visit of Connacht to CAP.
Let’s hope this win can do for this season what a home European win over Montpellier did for 2015/16 and inspire us back into some sort of challenge for the top six, as well as now battling on the continental front. If we get a kinder run of injuries who knows what might happen?