What a night! Cardiff Blues in yet another famous European win, this time over Toulouse at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.
It may have been in the Challenge Cup, Europe’s second tier, and it may only have been by two points, but in the context of the off-field saga surrounding the Arms Park at the moment, Friday night’s victory was one of the best in Cardiff Rugby history.
Last week’s bonus-point win over Lyon was unexpected, but enjoyable nevertheless. A win in Toulouse though? That was a result beyond most people’s dreams. From losing the first three games of the season to now, the turnaround is magnificent.
Danny Wilson made six changes to that XV that won last week, all in the forwards as Kris Dacey and Fa’ao Filise came into the front row, James Down and Damian Welch teamed up at lock, and Josh Navidi and Nick Williams joined the back row.
Toulouse meanwhile brought back a few big guns who had sat out last week’s drew away to Sale. Leonardo Ghiraldini, 86 Italy caps, Yoann Maestri, 59 France caps, and Gael Fickou, 32 France caps, among those selected by the club occupying third place in the Top14.
A frantic opening 10 minutes set the tone for the game, as Cardiff knocked the ball on twice in quick succession, but didn’t allow Toulouse to take advantage as a clever defensive blitz and a targeted breakdown attack suffocated them in attack.
Nick Williams made a thundering hit to underline the physical intensity of the game, but unfortunately it was on the wrong man and Romain Ntamack opened the scoring 21 years after his father had beaten Cardiff in the 1996 Heineken Cup Final.
This was already shaping up to be another European classic between the two sides though, and soon Cardiff were on the scoreboard as a scrum penalty spawned a kick to touch. One driving lineout was pulled down illegally, and Jarrod Evans went back to touch for the dominant forwards to take Nick Williams over the line.
Evans converted and he was back on the tee five minutes later when a prolonged Cardiff Blues attack resulted in Toulouse straying offside and it was 3-10 after 20 minutes. Not many people would have bet on that.
Unfortunately the remainder of the first half allowed the home side back into the game. Cardiff were able to repel the first attack with some solid maul and fringe defence, but the clearing kick from Tomos Williams went straight down Maxime Medard’s throat. A slight blemish on an otherwise flawless game.
The French full-back returned the ball with interest, reaching the middle of the 22, and two phases later it was Ntamack diving over the line and converting his own try.
Things went from bad to worse as Alex Cuthbert was yellow-carded for a high tackle, but the visitors remained resolute, with a strong tackle from Jarrod Evans ending one attack, before Matthew Morgan countered from another and kicked well to find touch in Toulouse’s half.
It would be another mistake, this time from Willis Halaholo, that edged the hosts ahead as the centre opted to kick in midfield but was charged down and the ball bounced straight into Antoine Dupont’s arms. He gladly ran free for the line and, although the conversion was missed, Toulouse were 15-10 to the good at half-time.
Although being five points down at the break would have been accepted before kick-off, it felt like a disappointment in a way for Cardiff after such a bright start. However, if there’s one thing we’re learning about the team this season, they are prepared to battle.
The timely return of Cuthbert to the field coincided with the visitors getting back into the game, with the first ten minutes of the half mirroring that of the first half in many respects. Possession pinged back and forth, the game moved from set piece to set piece, but we just about got the upper hand.
Then the turning point. Jarrod Evans took the ball to the line in a way that looks oh so familiar to a Gareth Anscombe or King Nicky Robinson, but is quickly becoming a trademark of the young fly-half.
He didn’t quite make the line break, but crucially got his hands through the tackle and the offload to Dillon Lewis, ever the modern attacking prop, was successful in freeing the Welsh international who drew the final man and allowed Macauley Cook to run home for his second try in a week.
Evans added the extras and with half-an-hour still to play, it was 15-17 to Cardiff. What followed was 30 minutes of action that can only make a supporter seriously proud.
Toulouse threw everything and the kitchen sink at the boys in blue, but a remarkable effort on the scramble defence kept the French side at bay. Particular credit must go to Matthew Morgan, with two superb try saving interventions.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic though. Tomos Williams kicked cleverly to give us field position, Morgan was ever dangerous on the counter attack, and Rey Lee-Lo looked back to his best with ball-in-hand.
The biggest weapon was the scrum though, something I’m sure very few people would have expected before kick-off. A 100% scrum success rate even forced Toulouse to opt for a lineout when an Ethan Lewis throw went awry.
A finishing front row of Brad Thyer, Ethan Lewis and Dillon Lewis had an average age of 23, but matured in front of our eyes as they did everything possible and more to win a penalty while driving the opposition backwards. How referee Foley resisted that is baffling.
Steve Shingler and Rynhard Elstadt added the only thing that was missing from the encounter, a few fisticuffs, and received 10 minutes in the sin bin, but it did nothing to slow the game down. A fantastic advert for Challenge Cup rugby.
It was just left for Cardiff Blues to give us a heart attack in the dying seconds as, after James Down produced a superb lineout steal, we conceded a turnover as the clock turned red and allowed Toulouse a final attack.
Fortunately the combined efforts of Garyn Smith and a returned Shingler brought the game to an end by securing a turnover, sparking wild celebrations in the South of France and in living rooms across South Wales, where Twitter was in real danger of being over-refreshed.
Revenge for the 2008 quarter-final, revenge for the 1996 final, and a loud message to those at the BBC and WalesOnline so quick to jump on the criticism bandwagon early on in the season. This Cardiff Blues team does not just roll over. There’s a definitive backbone there.
Of course this can only be a stepping stone, and there is no chance to rest on any laurels as the tough away games keep coming with a trip West to face Pro12 Champions Scarlets on Saturday.
Taking the right positives from Friday will be the key, establishing and maintaining dominance from the forwards in open play and at set pieces, and being brave in attack.
Learning the right lessons is also key. We were guilty of over-playing in the second half, while kicking in the first half was largely loose again. There’s a massive confidence to take though. A few weeks ago we’d have been written off before even making it to junction 33, now there’s a determination that we can cause the Turks problems.
One week at a time we’ll get there, come on Cardiff!!