Cardiff Blues ended the Pro12 season with a win over rivals Newport Gwent Dragons in Caerphilly, in what is likely to be the last ever game between a Cardiff side and a Newport side at the top level of rugby in Wales.
With a vote to take place on Tuesday to determine the future of NGD, Newport RFC and Rodney Parade it was a game tinged with sadness, as well as one devoid largely of atmosphere and where fans were subject to a dubious view of the game. As a one-off enforced move, fair enough, but regularly in the Pro12? No thank you.
Danny Wilson was forced into four changes from the team that beat Zebre the previous week, as Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey, Josh Navidi and Aled Summerhill missed out due to injury, with Corey Domachowski, Matthew Rees, Sion Bennett and Matthew Morgan starting. Lloyd Williams started ahead of Tomos at scrum-half in the only tactical change.
Things got off to the worst possible start for Cardiff as NGD cut through their defence right from kick-off. A pacey and direct attacking game seemed to shell shock the visitors as first a Tyler Morgan break and then an Ollie Griffiths carry took the ball within a metre of the try line.
Jarrad Hoeata appeared to disrupt the quick ball briefly but fly-half Angus O’Brien had the composure to pick out full-back Carl Meyer with an inch perfect cross field kick over the head of Rhun Williams and the hosts were ahead with just a minute on the clock, albeit with a missed conversion.
Soon the picture went from bad to worse for the away side, as from the restart Cory Hill was able to wander through a missing guard defence at the ruck. Making up to the 22 he was eventually caught, but a big Fa’ao Filise hit caused possession to be spilled and Matthew Morgan cleared well.
NGD continued to dominate possession and territory throughout the opening period of the game though. O’Brien kicked a distinctly cheap looking penalty for Nick Williams apparently taking out a lineout jumper in the air, but Ellis Jenkins prevented any further attacking opportunities with an excellent turnover.
Eventually Cardiff did start to get back into the game though, through two slightly fortunate incidents. Firstly, a Gareth Anscombe kick for territory bounced almost perfectly for Alex Cuthbert to run onto, the ball just slightly too high to gather.
Then, half way through the first period, a first lengthy piece of possession saw Morgan poke to ball through for Cuthbert to chase. O’Brien made a mess of covering the kick allowing the winger to hack on and Morgan was there again to touch the ball down in the corner.
Unfortunately the game then entered a scrappy ten minutes as we went from set piece to set piece. Knock-on’s and poor kicks dominated any open play and the spectacle died down after an exciting opening 20 minutes.
It took just a small moment of inspiration to get the game back up and running, which came in the form of a no look Willis Halaholo pass releasing Matthew Rees. Cardiff suddenly had pace injected into an attack and were comfortable on NGD’s 22 metre line for the first time in the game.
A few phases later and the momentum appeared to be slipping away, but stepping forward, or should I say stepping sideways, was Halaholo to glide through the home side’s defence and score one of the individual tries of the season to put Cardiff in the lead for the first time, a lead that was extended by Gareth Anscombe’s second conversion.
The second half was a turgid affair, as the game lurched from scrum to scrum with only poor kicking and soft penalties occasionally bridging the gaps. It had all the quality of a WRU Division Two game at points, befitting the surroundings perfectly.
It took until the 52nd minute for the scoreboard man to have to replace one of the numbered cards again, when Anscombe notched another penalty, and when T Rhys Thomas was sin binned for a nasty looking neck roll on Matthew Rees, it seemed like Cardiff might begin to edge away.
However, some sloppy attacking and clever NGD play to draw us into a forwards battle stopped any kind of momentum building, as quick ball was not forthcoming and set pieces were aplenty. Frustration at the stop-start nature of the play eventually began to boil over as a few scuffles began to appear between opposing players.
With Cardiff coming to the realisation that scoring tries was getting out of their each a change in tactics ensued. Instead of opting to work off a dominant scrum, Anscombe was handed the tee and kicked three more penalties, with only the home side’s Carl Meyer keeping them in touch with two impressive kicks of his own.
It eventually dawned on NGD that a loss would more than likely mean finishing below one of the Italian sides, but by the time they started playing again the clock was ticking towards 80 minutes.
Sam Beard took advantage of some very end-of-game style Cardiff defending to dot down in the corner, but as O’Brien drop kicked the conversion time turned red and there was no real chance for a late attack to be mounted, as Treviso stole 10th place at the last minute.
A 24-26 victory in the end for Cardiff and, as Danny Wilson said after the game, job done. They went to Caerphilly looking for a win, and they came away with it. You can’t ask for much more than that in a Welsh derby end of season dead rubber against a NGD team looking to make things scrappy on a local league pitch.
At no point after going ahead did it feel like Cardiff would relinquish the lead, despite the scoreline getting quite close at times. Possession and territory were dominated, and it was pleasing to see the game plan evolving in-game to move away from going for tries and towards keeping the scoreboard ticking over off the tee.
The massive positive though was the vast improvement at the scrum. Without being a scrum expert I don’t know for sure what it comes down to, but I’d suggest it’s no coincidence that Matthew Rees returns to the starting lineup and the pack function much better.
With the missed tackles stats down, and the maul defence also performing at a higher level, it’s certainly a few steps in the right direction. Just need to re-exert the attacking breakdown dominance, which shouldn’t be too difficult when carrying is made easier on higher quality pitches, and things start to click.
A third win on the bounce stretches our unbeaten run to four games, the best form since the start of the season, and it’s timely ahead of a European Champions Cup play-off likely to be against Stade Francais. With the pressure off that game to an extent, hopefully the players enjoy a few days off and come back refreshed for a tough battle out in France. Come on Cardiff!!