Cardiff Blues made it four wins in five games with a bonus-point win at the Arms Park over Zebre on Friday night to springboard off the bottom of Conference A.
After a disappointing loss to Scarlets in the Welsh derby last week, Danny Wilson made a number of changes aside from the missing Wales internationals, with only five of the starting XV surviving.
Six months after his last appearance, Gethin Jenkins was welcomed back to fitness as part of a front row that also contained Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise, a combined 115 years of age. Damian Welch and Josh Turnbull were also selected to complete an experienced pack.
Lloyd Williams and Steve Shingler got the nod at half-back, while Garyn Smith decreased the average age of the team at centre. Aled Summerhill was a late withdrawal on the wing, with Tom James moving up to start and Rhun Williams taking a seat on the bench.
With the fireworks from Sparks in the Park still lighting up the skies, it would be Cardiff Blues lighting up the Arms Park after just six minutes when Nick Williams secured a clean turnover in midfield, before Olly Robinson started a counter-attack that went through Josh Turnbull and Willis Halaholo before Lloyd Williams was released to sprint 50 metres and score.
Steve Shingler missed the conversion, and Carlo Canna quickly put Zebre on the scoreboard with a penalty, but it still felt like it was the home side in the ascendency. Cardiff were guilty of trying to force attacks though and we found ourselves turned over or coughing up possession more often than not.
It took a moment of magic half way through the first period to open up the Italians again as Lloyd turned provider for Halaholo, with the centre running a cutting line back across the defence, breaking one tackle, putting in a trademark step and cruising over to score his fourth try of the season.
A successful conversion this time for Shingler, who added two more penalties in the next 10 minutes, pushed the score out to 18-3, but Cardiff struggled to threaten the try line again in the first half.
Some inconsistent refereeing, affecting both sides it must be said, as well as a Blues attack that was too often over-complicated, resulted in a half that threatened to see the game off for the hosts, but in the end fell a bit short.
Fortunately, whereas in previous years a panic might’ve set in and we fail to kick on in the second half, the experience and leaders in the team paid dividends, as did the backbone shown to defeat Connacht and Toulouse, to retain composure and continue to wear down Zebre after half-time.
In the end it was direct attacking that brought about another try, as a penalty on halfway was hammered into the corner by Shingler, before the forwards powered over in a rolling maul with Matthew Rees the ball-carrying beneficiary.
That power from the pack would provide the basis for the bonus-point score a few minutes later as Zebre were forced to infringe to stop the driving maul resulting in a second try, but the backs were able to take advantage of the free play on offer.
The ball was spun wide through Matthew Morgan’s hands to Blaine Scully, and although a number of defenders from the Italian side were able to scramble across to stop the winger from scoring, he was able to produce an offload of the highest quality to allow Morgan to dive over from close range.
Shingler converted and was able to make it a 12-point personal haul as he converted Tom James’ try after the winger took a quick lineout inside Zebre’s 22 following a poor Canna clearance. The recipient Morgan spun Giulio Bisegni 180 degrees to allow TJ the simplest of tasks of touching down in the corner.
After a slow start to the season attacking-wise it was good to score more than 30 points in a game again, making it a total of 109 points scored by Cardiff Blues in the last three home games. Particularly the second half the pace and directness of the attack was pleasing, sprinkled with offloads that come with the confidence of playing well.
Unfortunately there was a slight blip on a performance that was otherwise the perfect game against Italian opposition at home, as Guglielmo Palazzani took a quick tap penalty from five metres out and dived over with Cardiff’s players switched off awaiting a kick to the corner.
It was a shame not to keep a clean sheet in terms of tries after a much-improved defensive performance from the Scarlets game in terms of intensity and physicality, that Zebre really had no answer for and stopped their expansive running game.
This was lead superbly by captain Gethin Jenkins, who proved the naysayers calling out the ‘typical Blues’ for selecting an older side very wrong. Melon, Matthew Rees, Damian Welch and Nick Williams particularly put in excellent shifts, and the team clearly found their experience invaluable.
With the majority of those named available all season, only Gethin is really in with a shot at an international call-up, it certainly stands us in good stead for the rest of the Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations during February and March.
However the elder statesmen will now put their feet up for a few weeks as the Anglo-Welsh Cup begins for the Welsh sides with a trip to Newcastle, and a chance for the younger and fringe players to stake their claim for a place in the Pro14 and European squad.