Cardiff Blues came out victorious against an injury-hit Dragons side in an enthralling first Welsh derby of the Pro14 season at the Cardiff Arms Park.
Head coach Danny Wilson had made seven changes from the side which lost to Dragons last week, welcoming back Alex Cuthbert, Rey Lee-Lo, Lloyd Williams, Josh Navidi, Seb Davies and Damian Welch from a week off, while Kris Dacey had managed to shake off a minor knock.
Opposite number Bernard Jackman meanwhile was without around 27 players, which will no doubt bring back bad memories of last December for Cardiff fans, while Ashton Hewitt and Jarred Rosser both failed late fitness tests ahead of Friday’s encounter.
Despite those injuries though it would be the Dragons who made the early running in a frenetic opening quarter to the game.
Inside three minutes the visitors led when Cardiff Blues switched off after the ball went to ground, and Hallam Amos counter-attacked. The full-back was pole axed by a high tackle from Fa’ao Filise but still managed to get the offload away to Elliott Dee.
The hooker produced a superb offload of his own for James Benjamin to make grounds before slick hands from Gavin Henson allowed Adam Warren the easy run to the corner.
As Henson kicked the conversion Filise was yellow carded, to add salt to the Cardiff wounds, but despite being a man down the hosts took just five minutes to reply through Kristian Dacey following a lengthy attack.
Nick Williams made big ground down the left wing, before Damian Welch was hauled down just short of the line on the right touchline. Cardiff stayed calm though, and when the Dragons left a hole in their defensive line, Dacey had no hesitation in scoring his 20th career try.
7-7 after seven minutes, but Dragons weren’t done yet as Rhun Williams missed touch from the kick-off and the visitors took advantage. After numerous phases it seemed they wouldn’t get over the line, as the Cardiff defence held strong.
However young hooker Dee was not about to be outdone by his opposite number, and slipped the tackle of Kieron Assiratti to dive over in the corner for his third try in two games.
Things started to settle down from then as Filise returned to the field, with Jarrod Evans next to trouble the scores for the Blues on 25 minutes with a penalty won at the scrum as the game became quite scrappy in midfield.
It would take the Cardiff defence once again not re-grouping after the ball went to ground for the try line to be crossed, as the Dragons took advantage with aplomb.
Wales international Tyler Morgan turned on the afterburners after spotting a bit of space outside Willis Halaholo before stepping inside and offloading to George Gasson for his first ever Dragons try.
Gavin Henson kicked the conversion but could not, along with opposite number Evans, unlock the opposition defence. It was mainly our possession in the build up to half-time, but some solid Dragons defending halted progress, while two cross-field kicks did not come off.
In many ways half-time would actually be the most important period of the game as Danny Wilson proved his ongoing commitment to the Cardiff Blues despite recently announcing his intention to leave by clearly motivating the side to step up their performance levels in the second half.
Rhun Williams did not return after the break due to an ankle injury, but this turned in to a blessing in disguise as, after a strong start to the second half, Evans produced an inch perfect miss pass for replacement Matthew Morgan to cross and bring the hosts back into the game.
Dragons hit back with a penalty a few minutes later from another strong scrum, but from there it was all Cardiff as the Arms Park crowd were finally treated to some tries from the team who, up until Friday, had scored the fewest in the league.
10 minutes of handling errors delayed the onslaught, with chances going begging on two or three occasions, something to work on for the coaching staff this week in the same way they need to address the first half performance.
However, Tom James eventually crossed thanks to what is quickly becoming a TJ-classic play as he drifted across from the left wing behind the line and popped up to take advantage of some well executed dummy lines.
With Evans pulling the strings nicely the Dragons stared to tire as Cardiff moved them from side-to-side, before James’ opposite wing Alex Cuthbert popped up with a typically abrasive finish from close range for his first try of the season.
Then the pick of the bunch as Jarrod Evans turned from provider to scorer with solo effort as he dummied one way, then back the other before racing through a gap and under the posts.
The game was totally taken away from Dragons as Morgan doubled his tally after Tomos Williams killed an away attack with a superb hit, before some quick thinking on his part saw him take a tap penalty and release the full-back to show off his wheels down the right wing.
There was just time for a Dragons try bonus point in defeat as Lloyd Fairbrother crashed over with a minute to go, but their bench weakness really came to the fore as Cardiff scored 33 points in the second half to secure the bonus point win.
With the scoreline showing 43-29 it well reflected an exciting first Welsh derby of the season that perfectly fitted the old cliche of ‘a game of two halves’.
Plenty to work on for Danny Wilson and his coaching staff as they were rightly disappointed by the first half performance in which we were guilty of assuming we would bully the Dragons pack around the field, but in truth came up against a better organised than expected outfit.
Having said that, the team didn’t panic and start kicking the ball away when we couldn’t break down the opposition defence, as we have done in recent weeks, instead keeping ball-in-hand, and that helped contribute to the Dragons tiring dramatically in the second half.
That free-scoring attack after half-time will be a big confidence booster to an attack that has been otherwise misfiring, and hopefully bring them back to last season’s form on a more regular basis, starting with next week when the European Challenge Cup campaign kicks off when Lyon come to CAP.
I’m sure Danny Wilson will fancy really going for some glory in his last season, and Europe is a great chance to do this, as well as honouring a Cardiff Rugby history that has been very competitive in continental competition.
Here’s hoping for another famous European night under the lights at the Arms Park, come on Cardiff!!