Cardiff Blues returned to winning ways on Saturday as a six-try second half performance made up for a distinctly lacklustre opening period. Alex Cuthbert and Matthew Morgan were both contenders for man-of-the-match, although perhaps that should go to whichever member of the coaching staff provided the much needed inspiration at half-time.
Danny Wilson made a number of changes after the previous week’s disappointing loss to Connacht, calling on the experience of Fa’ao Filise, George Earle, Steve Shingler and Alex Cuthbert to steady the ship, while Sion Bennett made his Cardiff debut at openside flanker in place of the injured Josh Navidi, however these changes didn’t seem to have much impact throughout the first half.
The game did get off to a flyer from a Cardiff point of view, with Nick Williams the focal point making early yards to keep the home side on the front foot before Blaine Scully knocked on. Possession was recovered though and soon ‘Big Nick’ was able to execute his trademark break from the back of a ruck to run over unopposed from just outside the 22.
Steve Shingler was on kicking duties for the day and converted easily, but would have to wait 25 minutes for the next score as the home side seemed to be falling foul of last week’s deficiencies. Slow ball, lacklustre breakdown work and generally a lack of work rate seemed destined to cause embarrassment.
Treviso scrum-half Tito Tebaldi notched two penalties to keep the away side in touch, before Shingler’s penalty in response was cancelled out by an excellent Ian McKinley finish off the back of some simple Cardiff errors.
At this point I’m sure I wasn’t the only one fearing the worst, with the early try seemingly having precisely the opposite effect than it should have, causing the players to almost completely take their feet off the pedal and start cruising.
In fact, in a twist of fate that really sums up our Pro12 season post-September, it took going behind at home to Treviso to shame the team to the extent that they started to combine the effort required to win a game with the accuracy expected and produce some of the exciting attacking rugby that we in the Arms Park stands have longed for.
Scully kicked off the race to avoid being behind at half-time with a typically flying American restart claim. Gareth Anscombe capitalised to make some ground, before camp was setup in the redzone. It came back to the two aforementioned players to break the green wall though, as they switched the point of the attack to the blindside where the fly-half took out the last two defenders to give the winger the simplest of finishes.
Shingler kicked the coversion with the last kick of the half for a 17-13 lead, before opening the gap within a minute of the second period commencing. Whatever was said at the break, mixed with the momentum of the score on the stroke of half-time, seemed to work wonders.
What a try it was too as a real team effort saw the attack start in the 22 with the ball going through the hands of Lloyd Williams, Kris Dacey, Anscombe, Shingler and Willis Halaholo before Matthew Morgan made the break. The scrum-half tracked the run superbly to play the middle man and set-up the inside centre to run the ball home from 30 metres.
The conversion was good and five minutes later Shingler was back on the tee as Alex Cuthbert was tripped desperately short of the line but possession was shifted from right to left before the man who can now call the 12 shirt his own made a half-break and fed full debutant Sion Bennett for his maiden score in the famous blue shirt.
The bonus point was now sewn up, and Cardiff were really motoring as they made it three tries in 10 minutes. Dacey was the scorer, his fifth of the season, but the try was all the work of Morgan who counter-attacked from inside his own half, waltzing past Treviso defenders as if they weren’t there, before offloading a few metres short of the line.
Treviso briefly threatened to get within a respectable distance of the home side, as Angelo Esposito’s converted score made it 38-20, the visitors recording their most points in an away game this season, but in truth it didn’t matter too much as the most important aspect of the match was the return to form of the Cardiff attack.
Perhaps the most pleasing moment of the game was the sixth home try which started from Scully and Shingler cleaning up a Treviso hack through, before Morgan and Halaholo showed a desire to re-establish front foot ball, working hard to track back and offer width to the counter attack.
This in turn allowed Cuthbert to get the ball in a few yards of space on the right wing, and what happened next was a sight to behold. After a week of totally unjustified and downright unfair social media vitriol, the British and Irish Lion went rampaging down the Arms Park pitch, stepping past two players before producing an excellent offload for Halaholo to claim the try.
The roar of the crowd and the eagerness of the players to celebrate with Cuthy was evidence enough that the Cardiff Blues attitude of looking after our own is as strong as ever, and the winger quite rightly deserved the congratulations of all at CAP.
The final two tries of the afternoon could not have gone to more deserving players, with first up Matthew Morgan benefiting from a wonderful Anscombe miss-pass to have an easy run-in, after two assists for the afternoon really confirming he is hitting some excellent form.
Then the big horse himself, Alex Cuthbert, rounded off a confident performance in a fashion that was Cuthy at his absolute best. He didn’t just come off his wing, he was purposely lining up in midfield, running a straight line straight between two purposely targeted props, and as he burst through he just kept accelerating past the full-back.
Shingler kicked a final conversion to take him to 22 points for the day, the highest tally in a match of any Pro12 player this season, for a final score of 57-20. Bonus point win secured, and job done.
However, I would urge caution after Saturday. Firstly, it’s important to remember that for 35 minutes of the first half we were dreadful, yet again. I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it’s just to underline that there is much work ahead. Against a better side we would have been put to bed by half-time, we were losing to Treviso at home after all!
Secondly, this bonus-point win does not put us back in the race for sixth place, not by a long shot. What it does is make us winners again, something we hadn’t done in the Pro12 since Boxing Day. That’s important, and the rest of the season should now be about developing that mentality and forming a basis to work off.
What happens in terms of the league will play out by itself, but Cardiff would do extremely well to live by the old sporting adage of ‘taking things a week at a time’. Small steps were taken on Saturday, but there is still a distance to go in terms of repairing the damage done over the last four months.
The attack seemed to fire back into life in the second half, with straight, direct running really putting the Treviso defence to the sword. Of course the defence needs to be worked on ahead of a trip to Edinburgh on Friday, as does the ability to dominate a larger majority of the game, but a win will always be a win, and at this point I’ll take them however they come.