There was ultimately disappointment for Cardiff Blues in Dublin on Saturday as they narrowly missed out on a win away at league leaders Leinster. However, with a positive injury outlook and an extremely encouraging performance, all the signs were good ahead of a European quarter-final trip to Gloucester next week.
Danny Wilson was able to welcome back a number of players from either international duty or injury as Kris Dacey, Rey Lee-Lo, Blaine Scully and Alex Cuthbert all started while, crucially, Ellis and Gethin Jenkins returned to the bench after a number of months on the sidelines for each of them.
Leinster made the early running, going through a few phases in the Cardiff half before Dan Leavy put Noel Reid through with an offload. Gareth Anscombe was on hand to make a slightly awkward looking tackle though, before Steve Shingler snaffled a turnover allowing Matthew Morgan and Blaine Scully to combine and get the ball away for the time being.
Unfortunately Leinster were on a mission early on, and soon were back in the opposition 22 looking dangerous. Cardiff’s defence was looking strong as it opted to drift more often than blitz early on, but eventually this allowed Reid an extra yard to pick out a perfect grubber kick that sat up for Leavy to spin past Morgan.
Ross Byrne added the extras to make the score 7-0 inside five minutes, and it seemed a long afternoon may be ahead. This was compounded when Kris Dacey opened his set piece aspect of the afternoon with a throw in that wasn’t straight, before Steve Shingler spilled Cardiff’s first possession in midfield.
However, almost out of nowhere, the visitors drew level after 11 minutes thanks to some excellent counter-attacking. Good hurrying work by Corey Domachowski as the first line of defence caused Leinster to spill possession, which Cardiff pounced on to spin the ball wide through Rey Lee-Lo’s hands, out to Scully to make ground before the captain handed back inside to his Samoan colleague and onto Tomos Williams running the supporting line.
Cardiff struggled to maintain a foothold in the game though as Leinster dominated territory and possession. They were assisted by an extremely dodgy looking Cardiff scrum which gave up a penalty before resulting in scrappy ball for Tomos Williams who’s box kick clearance was charged down but fortunately recovered by Anscombe.
The defensive lineout did provide a moment of inspiration though as Macauley Cook stole the ball at the tail, before a long pass and quick hands from the centres released Morgan and Scully on the left. The ball was kept alive as the away side entered the Leinster 22, and when Alex Cuthbert took us up to the five metre line it seemed like a try might be on.
A long, looping pass out wide from Shingler to Scully took the forward momentum out of the attack though, and when the American had to blindly offload to avoid touch it was the hosts who dived on the loose ball and were able to clear. An opportunity lost, but the pressure of defending relieved momentarily and confidence was gained.
Cuthbert certainly was brought alive by his foray towards the try line as he intercepted a dangerous looking Leinster attack, turning to kick the ball and force Rory O’Loughlin into touch. Unfortunately Dacey’s lineout was lost, but Josh Navidi made up for that with a midfield turnover.
Cardiff were really swinging between the sublime and ridiculous by this point as Nick Williams made a trademark surging run through midfield, but with no support to offload to he knocked on as he hit the deck with the ball in one hand. The Morgan claimed a high ball and looked to counter, but his pace couldn’t be gathered by Scully.
This is where the scrum was really exposed as Kris Dacey and Anton Peikrishvili buckled, allowing Leinster to win the penalty and kick to the corner. The driving maul was well defended, as was Adam Byrne’s scamper to the line out wide, but it was only a matter of time for the hosts and scrum-half Luke McGrath eventually sniped over.
Byrne added the extras to restore the seven-point lead, but Cardiff came back again, winning two quickfire penalties to set up a lineout on the 22. Some strong carrying edged us towards the red zone, but a knock on from Scott Andrews, on for the injured Peikrishvili, killed the attack and ended the half at 14-7.
Definite positives to take forward, although there was a distinct feeling that surely Leinster can’t continue to be this lacklustre into the second period?
Off the pace the Pro12 league leaders were though as forward passes and a foot in touch denied them try scoring opportunities, before an ill-advised grubber kick from Isa Nacewa gave Gareth Anscombe the chance to counter attack.
Stepping past two men he threw an offload to Kristian Dacey who proved his worth as a ball playing hooker with a shimmy past his man and a turn of pace to break away. Drawing the last man he fed Tomos Williams to run in for his second try of the game, and Cardiff were level eight minutes after half-time thanks to Shingler’s boot.
Leinster did manage to nudge their noses back ahead, but only with the assistance of referee Mr Clancy as they won a suspicious looking scrum penalty, despite replacement tighthead Mike Ross being on his knees, before Nick Williams was harshly penalised for not rolling away and Byrne took full advantage off the kicking tee.
However, just like in the first half, Cardiff produced something out of nothing. On the back foot and defending inside their 22, George Earle produced an excellent turnover, secured by Jarrad Hoeata before the ball found it’s way to Steve Shingler.
The inside centre released his outside colleague Lee-Lo who promptly broke two tackles before a delightful offload allowed Blaine Scully to run free and draw the last defender before feeding replacement Sion Bennett to go under the posts only two minutes after he came on. Shingler’s conversion took us four points clear and ahead for the first time.
For the next 10 minutes the game was all Leinster. Pounding away at the Cardiff line, only being interrupted by strong defensive and a knock-on from a Lee-Lo interception attempt. Halfway through the onslaught the away side did manage a brief turnover, as Scully and Shingler’s counter-ruck lead to a knock-on, but this started the downfall.
Despite bringing Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins off the bench, the away scrum was still on the end of a hammering. This defensive set-piece, five metres from the Cardiff line, was a prime example as Leinster got the shove on and both visiting props buckled.
Bennett scooped some scrappy ball out from number eight, but then Tomos Williams’ inexperience came to the fore as he took us through another phase deep in our own 22 before clearing his lines. Unfortunately that unnecessary ruck coughed up a Leinster penalty and we were back under the cosh.
The hosts went to the corner and as the driving maul went forward, Ross Molony came on the blindside to seemingly touch down in the corner. Despite being stood no more than half a metre from the grounding, the touch judge asked to check if the second row’s elbow was in touch, and although it seemed it was, the TMO awarded the try.
This paragraph will now be dedicated to Alex Cuthbert who had a very good game overall. Not a lot of chances with ball in hand but kick chase and defensively he answered a lot of questions, none more so than when another lineout was lost shortly after conceding to Molony and James Tracey kicked on. The right winger went back to cover the kick, turned past two players and produced a kick of his own right into the corner. Outstanding play.
The last 10 minutes was a frantic affair as Leinster asked questions of the Cardiff defence, but the visitors stood up well as Matthew Morgan was solid under the kicks before sending back replies of his own to win the territory battle.
Off the lineout the ball was worked nicely through Willis Halaholo to Josh Navidi who seemed to release Tom James for the corner, but the lack of match sharpness appeared to catch up with the winger as he slipped and was almost put into touch.
James’ offload was snaffled by Ellis Jenkins, before Cardiff stretched Leinster to the right wing. Morgan appeared in midfield, but with a two-on-one overlap outside he somehow managed to get caught in about one hundred minds, eventually producing a bizarre NFL style forward pass to Rey Lee-Lo who had already made his run while the full-back was holding onto the ball.
Cardiff continued to try and come forwards, but the situation was being forced by this point, and two loose passes ended the two further attacking opportunities before the game was brought to a close and the losing bonus-point was confirmed.
If someone had offered me a losing bonus point and all key players coming through unscathed before the game I’d have likely ripped their arm off, however it’s certainly not unfair to feel a tinge of disappointment at not taking the opportunity to pick up a win in Dublin and head off to Gloucester on a real high.
However, that disappointment must be put to one side as the players and coaches focus on a large number of positives from Saturday’s performance. The defence was very strong again, and our counter-attacking game is looking more dangerous every week, while senior players of Alex Cuthbert and Josh Navidi’s ilk were superb again.
The set piece is a big area of concern that will need to rectified this week before the European quarter-final, but with only one major area to work on it’s certainly do-able.
Winners and losers from Saturday ahead of next week? Cuthbert and Blaine Scully both nailed down starting spots in the back three, as did Rey Lee-Lo in midfield. Josh Navidi will have to feature somewhere, while youngster Corey Domachowski and Tomos Williams weren’t daunted by a trip to the RDS, although may find themselves benched next week.
Kris Dacey may well be the one big loser as his lineout throwing and scrummaging left plenty to be desired, and his open play work may be better off the bench as game becomes less structured later on against Gloucester. Anton Peikrishvili was the only injury concern, and Danny Wilson will be cautious about risking his back after Saturday’s display.
Overall though there is a confidence to take into the big game next week, and I for one cannot wait for it. A strong travelling contingent will be coming from all over to support the team looking for a good day out and a performance from the boys, come on Cardiff!!