It’s two losses in two games to start the Guinness Pro14 season for Cardiff Blues as they went down to a heavy defeat at the hands of Leinster in Dublin on Friday night.
The scoreline did not fully reflect the game though, as there was only a seven point gap with 12 minutes to go, before Leinster took advantage of tired Cardiff Blues legs in the latter stages.
Cardiff Blues head coach Danny Wilson had made six changes from the side that lost to Edinburgh last week, as Kieron Assiratti, Macauley Cook, Steve Shingler, Garyn Smith, Tom James and Rhun Williams came into the starting XV.
A lengthy injury list has hindered Wilson, but Leinster had their own issues with Irish internationals Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose all preparing to watch on from the stands.
The game got off to a scrappy start, with errors aplenty as both sides lacked quality without star players, notably Steve Shingler knocking on deep in his own 22, but Cardiff Blues defence held strong and Leinster overthrew an attacking lineout.
It was the hosts who had the first chance at points after Cardiff buckled in the scrum, but Ross Byrne missed the chance to get the scoreboard moving.
Instead it fell to Steve Shingler to break the deadlock off the tee, after Leinster had infringed on the floor to stop a promising Blues attack started by Alex Cuthbert’s half-break.
With 20 minutes gone it seemed the visitors would have the chance to increase that lead as Cuthbert went to run the ball from deep, only to be stopped by a swinging arm to the chin by Isa Nacewa. Referee Andy Brace showed a yellow card to the Leinster captain, who was perhaps fortunate not to receive a harsher punishment.
They very nearly did go further ahead, when Rey Lee-Lo stormed through a big midfield gap in the first play after the sin-binning, but his final pass to Rhun Williams was a poor one and the chance went begging.
In the end it was only the boot of Shingler that clocked up any points during the man advantage period, as young tighthead Kieron Assiratti turned the screw at the scrum, before Nacewa returned just after the half-hour mark.
As Leinster came back to full strength they were awarded a penalty for Garyn Smith not rolling away at a ruck, which was duly punted into the corner.
The powerful Irish side’s pack got to work straight away and, after checking with the TMO, it was confirmed that hooker James Tracy has touched the ball down at the back of the maul. Byrne added the extras and, just like that, Leinster were ahead.
With half-time approaching the hosts were ramping up the pressure, but Cardiff Blues held firm thanks to an impressive line speed. It was only due to another piece of ill-discipline, this time from Josh Navidi, that Byrne was able to make it 10-6 at the break.
Shingler and Byrne traded penalties to begin the second half, but the errors that plagued the first period continued after half-time, bringing a stop-start nature to the game.
Slowly but surely Leinster got more of a foothold on the game though, beginning to dominate possession and territory, but a superb Josh Turnbull turnover on almost his own line ended a dangerous looking attack.
23-year-old Byrne extended the lead by three more points, as Cardiff’s scrum started to creak, but the visitors were still fighting to stay in the game, going through 12 phases in Leinster’s 22 before Brace harshly penalised James Down for clearing out beyond the ruck.
This seemed to be the turning point in the game, as two minutes later, with Cardiff Blues in possession in midfield, Josh van der Flier was able to disrupt a ruck and the ball squirted loose. Replacement hooker Sean Cronin scooped it up and sped off for Leinster’s second try.
The away side went for the jugular to try and stay in the game, throwing on attacking-minded Jarrod Evans and Matthew Morgan to try and make something happen.
Unfortunately it opened Cardiff Blues up in defence, as Leinster targeted diminutive full-back Morgan with a cross-field kick, and winger Barry Daly rose to brilliantly collect the ball and touch down.
Ross Byrne converted both tries, and was back in the tee again just a minute later as a flowing move, mixed with a lucky bounce, saw replacement scrum-half Nick McCarthy cross to secure a bonus point for the Irish side.
Cardiff returned to the red zone again as they battled valiantly, but the fatigue in legs was clear to see, and van der Flier secured another turnover to end the game with the score-line showing 37-9.
After the game Cardiff Blues backs coach looked for the positives, saying “for 69 minutes we put in a real performance that everyone at the Blues can be proud of. As a coaching and playing group we have to take heart from those first 69 minutes.”
He also expected the team to continue to work ahead this week, ahead of a return home against Glasgow on Saturday, “We were disappointed with our performance last week and we owe it to ourselves and importantly to our supporters to turn up next Saturday and put in a performance that the supporters can leave the Arms Park proud of.”