Pre-season came to an unbeaten end for Cardiff Blues on Friday night at the Arms Park with victory over English champions Exeter Chiefs.
A brace of tries from Aled Summerhill, as well as the respective boots of Steven Shingler and Jarrod Evans, held off the West Country side in a competitive end to the friendlies before the Guinness Pro14 gets underway next week.
Cardiff Blues head coach Danny Wilson had made 13 changes from the side which beat London Scottish last week, with only Summerhill and Seb Davies surviving, as he attempted to give everyone in the squad some game time heading into the season.
First-team players Fa’ao Filise, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Lloyd Williams, Willis Halaholo, Alex Cuthbert and Matthew Morgan all got minutes, as did fly-half Steven Shingler who opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a penalty.
Immediately from the restart Exeter winger Olly Woodburn seized on hesitation in the Cardiff defence to get his side on the front foot and, after a period of extended pressure, Don Armand was able to dive over from the back of a rolling maul.
Henry Slade kicked the conversion, but the lead changed hands once again as Matthew Morgan did what he does best, made something out of nothing. Sprinting clear he fed Summerhill to beat the last man and claim his first try of the evening, with Shingler converting.
A competitive game would see yet another response from the Chiefs, as Sam Simmonds this time benefited off the back of a rolling maul, with memories of last season’s Anglo-Welsh game where Exeter bullied the Blues off the park coming flooding back.
10-14 down at the break after Slade’s second conversion, and with a very young bench to turn to, things weren’t looking good for Wilson, especially when the England back extended the Chiefs lead earlier in the second half.
However, the time is coming for this crop of academy graduates to live up to the rave reviews they have earned through age grade rugby, and they took a first step to doing just that at the Arms Park.
20-year-old tighthead prop Kieron Assiratti was introduced at the break and would go on to win a number of scrum penalties throughout the second period, one of which was the basis for Cardiff getting their noses in front again.
Young fly-half Jarrod Evans spotted space behind Exeter’s rush defence, and produced a perfectly weighted chip for Summerhill to cross again, his second on the night and fifth in pre-season.
The home side continued in the ascendancy as Josh Navidi almost scored in the corner after good work in midfield by Willis Halaholo, but the ball was knocked out of the number eight’s hands as he stretched for the line.
Evans himself stretched the lead with a penalty, having missed the conversion for Summerhill’s second, before his opposite number Slade matched him with three points for the away team.
After Owen Lane had threatened down the right hand side with a neat kick and chase, a Cardiff Blues front row with an average age of just 21 turned the screw against their Premiership winning opposition, allowing Evans to put the hosts 20-21 ahead.
Exeter really ramped up the pressure in the last five minutes, keeping Cardiff pinned back on their own five-metre line, but some solid last-ditch defending kept the Chiefs at bay.
In the end Slade dropped into the pocket in preparation for a dramatic late drop-goal, but the pass back was a poor one and Tomos Williams showed great desire in reaching the fly-half to block his match-winning attempt.
The whistle of referee Mr Whitehouse brought a great cheer from the 4,861 strong crowd at the Arms Park, perhaps strangely for a pre-season encounter, but those present were aware of the competitiveness they had just seen.
Danny Wilson was quick to point out that “it means nothing if we lose (to Edinburgh) next weekend” in his post-match press conference, and he will no doubt be sweating on the fitness of Ellis Jenkins, Steve Shingler and Matthew Morgan who all appeared to pick up injuries during the game.
However, he did acknowledge it was a “fantastic result, with the English champions coming to the Arms Park it was going to be a big test”, and those are the positives for the Cardiff Blues to focus on ahead of the season opener next Friday.