Cardiff Blues returned to Guinness Pro14 action with a 30-17 defeat to Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday night, as a brave second-half comeback was blown by our own mistakes.
After two wins against French opposition in the European Challenge Cup there was an air of almost confidence emanating from the capital sides against a Scarlets team who saw their Champions Cup knockout ambitions slip away with back-to-back defeats against Toulon and Bath.
Danny Wilson made five changes to the side which beat Toulouse at the Stade Ernest-Wallon last week, with Brad Thyer and Dillon Lewis coming into the front row, Seb Davies returning at lock, Olly Robinson taking the openside jersey and Willis Halaholo being recalled in the centre.
It would be the centre who was involved in the first incident of the game just 40 seconds in as he was penalised for going off his feet at the breakdown, and Leigh Halfpenny opened the scoring for the hosts, before Jarrod Evans levelled the scores a few minutes later.
A back-and-forth opening 10 minutes saw both teams trying to attack, but unfortunately it would be Scarlets who grabbed the first try of the game as Hadleigh Parkes sliced through a large gap in the Cardiff Blues defence to celebrate a Wales squad call-up.
Things then started going from bad to worse for the visitors, as Halfpenny notched another penalty, Dillon Lewis, Blaine Scully and Jarrod Evans were all forced off with injury, and Nick Williams was shown a yellow card for an unnecessary shoulder charge at the breakdown.
Scarlets put the pressure on with the man advantage, and just as it seemed Cardiff would ride the onslaught, the referee produced a bizarre decision to penalise Alex Cuthbert for ‘diving on’ Steff Evans to stop his opposite number scoring from a kick through.
The hosts went to the corner and promptly drove over from close range, with Ryan Elias the ball-carrying beneficiary of the rolling maul.
Cardiff attempted to get back into the game with a strong late attack, as Willis Halaholo ducking and diving only to have the ball knocked out of his hand as he reached for the line, and the teams went in with the Scarlets leading 18-3.
Josh Turnbull replaced Olly Robinson at half-time to make it four substitutions before the second half had commenced, but things finally started to calm down for the visitors in the first 10 minutes after the interval.
It took a moment of magic to break a Scarlets defence that was shaping up comfortably against a slightly lacklustre attack, with Steve Shingler taking the ball to the line and finding an offload to Halaholo who produced a killer step to go past Parkes and under the sticks.
Shingler converted before getting back in possession moments later and punting the ball in behind the home side. Johnny McNicholl went back to recover the ball on his try line, but when he inexplicably tried to run the ball from so deep, Lloyd Williams was all too happy to rip it from him and dive over.
A second conversion for Shingler brought the gap between the two teams back to a point, but then Cardiff Blues went and shot ourselves in the foot with a completely botched attempt to secure the kick-off, and within two phases some slick hands and a clever kick had Jonathan Evans scoring for Scarlets.
The visitors tried in vain to get back into the game, and when Steff Evans went over for a score of his own, the damage was done.
Late attempts to sneak a losing bonus point were pushed back by an organised Scarlets defence and a Cardiff Blues attack that reverted to early season sideways drifting patterns were easy to shape up against.
With so many injuries early in the game, as well as a yellow card, it was obvious legs would tire towards the end of the 80 minutes, while the inconsistency in the XV players on the field impacted on team cohesion. Jarrod Evans’ injury was particularly problematic.
Despite that though the accuracy and execution, particularly in attack, was below the level expected from a team of talented players, and will no doubt be a source of disappointment for them and the coaching staff.
It should also be expected that the squad are in for a Shaun Edwards pasting on Tuesday with some serious defensive alignment issues in midfield compounding the amount of easy turnover ball offered to a potent counter-attacking force like Scarlets.
For the young players it was a reminder of the levels they need to get to to be competing at the top end of Celtic and European rugby again, and hopefully a learning curve in their ongoing development.
With some drills on attacking execution and tweaks to be offensive and defensive shape, as well as taking confidence from the early second half comeback, the team should be ready to hand Zebre the Arms Park league hammering that is long overdue. Come on Cardiff!