Cardiff Blues registered their first win of the season courtesy of a superb late kick from Jarrod Evans against Connacht in the Galway wind.
Following defeats to Edinburgh, Leinster and Glasgow in the opening three rounds, it will no doubt come as a relief to head coach Danny Wilson to get Cardiff Blues off the mark and vindicate his faith in the side’s younger players.
For new Connacht coach Kieran Keane though, it underlines the size of his task to pick the 2015/16 Pro12 Champions up off the ground and get them challenging at the top of the league again, with this loss coming after defeat to Dragons at Rodney Parade last week.
Wilson had been able to recall Welsh international Kristian Dacey at hooker, who packed down alongside Fa’ao Filise and Brad Thyer in a changed front row, but showed faith in a backline that had only scored two tries before round four.
The weather, as it often does in Galway, was certainly playing it’s part with 45mph winds blowing down the field. Cardiff Blues captain Lloyd Williams won the toss and opted to play into the gale in the first half.
What with having to play a tight game against both Connacht and the wind, and with kicking nigh on impossible, the visitors found themselves penned into their own half for much of the opening 10 minutes.
Defending admirably they only gave up three points to the hosts, with Craig Ronaldson slotting a penalty after 11 minutes. Ireland international scrum-half Kieran Marmion was looking sharp around the fringes of the ruck, while lock Ultan Dillane got through a lot of carrying work.
From there though Cardiff started getting a foothold in the game. The blue wall was forcing Connacht into mistakes, and Seb Davies pounced on one of those, stepping away from the home side and making a bit of ground.
A Lloyd Williams grubber kick wasn’t fielded very well by Darragh Leader, allowing Alex Cuthbert to stride away, but he was pulled down short and Rey Lee-Lo couldn’t breakthrough the disorganised home defensive line.
It would be another promising looking Cardiff Blues attack that brought the real turning point of the first half as Steve Shingler stepped past a few defenders before finding Josh Navidi in support. The flanker attempted to release Nick Williams but the number eight was tackled early by his opposite number John Muldoon.
Referee Marius Mitrea produced a yellow card for the Connacht captain, and, although the away side were penalised quite quickly after finding themselves with a man advantage, they soon returned to the home 22.
With just three minutes left in the first half Shingler fired a flat, perhaps marginally forward, pass to the flying centre Willis Halaholo who’s line was perfect to cut between two Connacht forwards and step past Rory Scholes to score the opening try of the game.
Shingler duly converted from in front of the posts and Cardiff Blues went in with a thoroughly deserved 3-7 lead after a tactical masterclass in how to play into strong winds.
The second half saw the ever strengthening wind at the backs of the visitors as they tried to push on from their half-time lead and put the game to bed. However, attacking issues that have plagued Cardiff so far this season started to rear their heads.
Particularly prevalent was the breakdown issue, as Connacht managed to secure a number of turnovers with the Blues entering promising attacking positions, while a lack of cutting edge out wide stunted progress made.
Being used to playing in Galway every other week, the hosts were adept at playing into the wind, and grew in confidence as they were able to play out of their own half on the hour mark with Muldoon now back on the field.
A quite magnificent 30-phase period of play saw Connacht retain possession well and hammer at the Cardiff door, but the Blues stood firm throughout, until the ball was finally spun wide for Darragh Leader to cross in the corner.
Andrew Deegan missed the conversion, and Shingler replied inside two minutes with a penalty kick to nudge the visitors back in front, as the drama increased at the Sportsground.
Connacht returned to the Cardiff 22 soon after, and thought they had scored their second try of the afternoon through Chris Farrell only for it to be ruled out due to Eoin McKeon obstructing Alex Cuthbert as the Wales winger attempted to get across and make a tackle.
It didn’t take long for the score to actually come though, when Shane Delahunt flopped over at the back of a strong home driving maul and Leader took over kicking duties to make the score 15-10 with five minutes to go.
After last week’s late capitulation against Glasgow it seemed Cardiff Blues would struggle to come back from such a late score, however they weren’t keen on just rolling over after such a long and physical defensive battle.
Debutant Olly Robinson secured a turnover, and from the scrum Jarrod Evans was able to release Willis Halaholo for his second try in the same week he became a father again.
The try levelled up the game, leaving Evans the task of kicking for the game. Judging the conditions perfectly he sent the ball wide of the left hand post and let the wind push it through the uprights to give the visitors a two-point lead with seconds left on the clock.
Matthew Morgan secured the restart and Cardiff Blues saw out the game for a first win of the season, keeping them in touch with the rest of Conference A and reaching another important milestone in the re-building of the season after that opening day disappointment.
Up next is another Irish trip as Danny Wilson’s men head to Munster, with the tough games coming thick and fast. However, that spells the last match away in Ireland, and with a win under their belts there is no reason Cardiff Blues shouldn’t head to Thomond Park with confidence in themselves.