Cardiff Blues fell back down to earth with a bang from the bonus point win over Ospreys at Judgement Day to only just scraping past bottom-placed Zebre at home.
Head Coach Danny Wilson stuck with the majority of the team that won last time out, the only changes coming in the form of Rhys Gill replacing Gethin Jenkins at loosehead, Tomos Williams coming in for namesake Lloyd at 9, while Aled Summerhill took Matthew Morgan’s back three place as Rhun Williams switched to full-back.
It was the home side who made all the early running, with Alex Cuthbert releasing Tomos Williams, who was stopped only be an early tackle, before Gareth Anscombe’s lovely chip over the defence failed to sit up for Rey Lee-Lo as the try line beckoned, all within the opening three minutes.
Cardiff’s desire to play a quick game was evident as Anscombe shaped to kick a penalty into the corner, only to tap and go across the field, but Cuthbert was turned over on the five metre line. In the end the clocked showed 10 minutes as the Welsh fly-half opened the scoring with a penalty for a deliberate Zebre knock on.
All the territory and possession was Cardiff’s, but they were slipping back into being their own worst enemy as simple errors was stunting any chance at gaining momentum. Only some excellent work from Ellis Jenkins at the breakdown kept us in it, and allowed Anscombe to make it 6-0 from the tee.
It wasn’t until after the halfway point of the first half that the hosts finally crossed the whitewash, but once they did it opened some mini floodgates. It started with a higher risk play from Anscombe, throwing a long flat pass to tease the Zebre defence into attempting the intercept.
Number eight Derek Minnie duly obliged but could not reach the ball and Nick Williams exploited the gap left in the defensive line. The New Zealander was tackled well, but his offload game came to the fore as he found Jenkins, who showed off some ball skills of his own to allow Anscombe on the wrap around to score the opening try of the evening.
With the conversion kicked Cardiff were soon celebrating again as Cuthbert challenged for Tomos Williams’ box kick. His knock back found the scrum half again who flicked the ball out wide and eventually Aled Summerhill was released to speed over the line after beautifully standing up full-back Edoardo Padovani.
With the score now at 20-0 things should have been more comfortable for the home side, but in typical Cardiff fashion they made it difficult. Winger Kayle Van Zyl made Zebre yards before kicking it inside. A clear Carlo Canna knock-on was then missed, before Nick Williams was adjudged to have performed a tip tackle and sent to the sin bin.
Fortunately the only scores while the hosts were down to 14-men were a penalty for each side, but the while the scoreboard was not impacted, the momentum of Cardiff’s play was. Zebre played all the rugby up till half-time, with only a magnificent last-ditch tackle from Alex Cuthbert keeping the scoreline at 23-3.
The break should have allowed Cardiff to re-build, but unfortunately any chance of an early score was taken away when the referee allowed a clearly offside Federico Ruzza to intercept Tomos’ pass from the base of the ruck and streak away, with only a very good Rhun Williams cover tackle preventing a Zebre try.
What happened next however can only be described as farcical. A Zebre knock on setup a Cardiff scrum on our own five metre line. A tiring Fa’ao Filise conceded a penalty for going straight to ground and was warned by referee Frank Murphy that the next time he did that he would receive a yellow card.
Ellis Jenkins, captain on the night, informed Mr Murphy that Scott Andrews was now set to replace Filise, which the referee acknowledged, but the substitution was blocked by the Fourth Official on the grounds that a substitution could not take place during on the back of a penalty.
It’s something I’ve never come across, and is made all the more bizarre by the fact the referee himself showed no objection and I cannot find anywhere in the law book where it explicitly states a substitution can’t take place during a penalty stoppage, only that “substitutions may only be made when the ball is dead”, which I’d suggest it was.
With the substitution declined Filise was promptly penalised at the next scrum and sin binned. Andrews did now get on as a replacement, but the farce continues at the fault of Cardiff as the scrum continued to disintegrate and Mr Murphy went under the posts for a penalty try.
Back down to 14 and just 13 points in the game, Cardiff needed something special, and it came from a great hope for the future in Tomos Williams. We all know about his special skillset, but this time it was his workrate and aggression on show as he chased Carlo Canna from the kick-off, charged down the clearance and flopped on the loose ball.
20 point gap restored and Tomos was quickly bonus point hunting as a world class individual score was pulled back for an earlier Nick Williams knock on. Unfortunately from the scrum Cardiff were penalised again, Zebre went to the corner and flanker Maxime Mbanda was able to force his way over from close range.
With the score at 30-17, 63 minutes on the clock and back up to the full compliment of players, the home side were finally able to benefit from some possession in the opposition half, but the amount of defending over the previous 20 minutes was telling as, despite a good Jenkins break, nothing was made of the attack.
This led into the second major moment of the game, as Cardiff opted to defend a Zebre driving maul by standing off and sending a single defender in to tackle the ball carrier. Unfortunately Sion Bennett decided to do this with an old fashioned no arms chop tackle.
In retaliation to the dangerous play, away substitute prop Dario Chistolini opted to take matters into his own hands and strike Bennett to the face with his fist and knee. Yellow for the Cardiff man, red for the Italian.
Despite both teams being down a man it didn’t stop Zebre dominance though, as they continued to dominate possession and territory. Set piece dominance and a great patience in recycling the ball so the away side camped in our redzone, but some solid last ditch defending from Cardiff saw the ball held up over the line twice.
With two minutes to go Dries van Schalkwyk did burrow over for a third try and with Guglielmo Palazzani’s conversion making it a six point game there was more than a bit of worry as Mattia Bellini streaked away down the left wing with the clock on red. Fortunately Matthew Morgan made the covering tackle and Zebre conceded a penalty in midfield to leave with just a losing bonus point.
The game and statistics will not make pretty viewing for Danny Wilson and the players when they re-convene on Monday morning, with Cardiff coming off worse in possession and territory at home against an Italian side, as well as being well and truly beaten at the set piece and breakdown area.
Without wishing to be disrespectful to Zebre, who certainly came and did a job on us on Friday, you have to expect Cardiff to beat an Italian side at home in a comfortable fashion. If we harbour ambitions to break the top six, bonus point wins at the Arms Park should really be a given.
However, there are baby steps towards positivity ahead of next week against Newport, and next season. Firstly, there were some individual aspects of our play and performances that were very encouraging. Our defensive play on our own try line was commendable, and our attacking before half-times was always dangerous.
The younger players involved, the likes of Tomos Williams, Aled Summerhill and Rhun Williams, all put in good shifts, while there were flashes from Nick Williams and Jarrad Hoeata to prove the old guard were still firing.
Looking ahead to next season we can take confidence that, for the first time since 2011/12, we have gone a season unbeaten against the Italian sides. As bizarre as that sounds that should be seen as a positive, both psychologically and in terms of the Italian sides becoming harder to play against year-on-year.
These shouldn’t cloud the fact that overall Friday’s performance was not acceptable, and ahead of next weekend’s regular season closer, a backlash is needed.
Motivation shouldn’t be higher with a response required from last week, competition for places in the play-offs, a local derby, and the fact we owe Newport a try bonus point from Boxing Day’s game. A big week awaits, come on Cardiff!!