Cardiff Blues jumped to fourth in the Guinness Pro14’s Conference A with a narrow defeat over Connacht at the Arms Park on Friday night.
In a seven-try thriller it was the hosts who came out on top thanks to some strong individual performances, a debut score from Owen Lane and the assured return of Gareth Anscombe from injury.
After a few weeks off league action, Danny Wilson brought back the experience up front in the shape of Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise, while George Earle and Damian Welch formed the second row partnership.
Injuries to Lloyd Williams, Steve Shingler, Jack Roberts, Alex Cuthbert, Aled Summerhill and Rhun Williams, as well as international call-ups for Rey Lee-Lo and Blaine Scully, meant the youth of Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Garyn Smith and Lane joined Tom James, Matthew Morgan and Willis Halaholo in the backs.
That inexperience resulted in Connacht having the majority of the possession and territory in the opening 10 minutes, as Evans through a wayward pass and Cardiff infringed in their own 22.
25 phases of strong defence kept the visitors at bay, but a penalty conceded at the scrum allowed Jack Carty to finally open the scoring off the kicking tee.
Two minutes later though it was Carty allowing Cardiff back into the game as, under pressure from Tomos Williams, he spilled the ball and was penalised for slowing the ball down, with Evans levelling the score.
From there the home side were able to form the basis for a first proper attack.
A penalty allowed Evans to kick us down into Connacht’s territory, and after two phases some magic offloads from Macauley Cook, Owen Lane and Willis Halaholo allowed Olly Robinson to dive over in the corner for the game’s first try.
A successful conversion from Evans, as well as a second penalty kick, extended the lead out to 13-3 at the mid-point of the first half, however little errors crept into the Blues’ game as Tom James conceded two penalties and Jarrod Evans missed touch twice with penalties of our own.
Eventually that pressure being invited on ourselves told, and Willis Halaholo was pressure in midfield into throwing a loose pass which Connacht winger Niyi Adeolokun gladly intercepted and jogged under the posts.
Carty added the extras and drew the scores level when Macauley Cook crept offside, cancelling out a 10-point lead inside five minutes.
Credit to Cardiff though, again proving they are not a team to roll over, Evans kicked off a dangerous attack with some individual brilliance to create a line break before offloading to Robinson who was brought down inches short of a second try on the night.
The ball went to ground but the hosts had a penalty and Evans put us back ahead for a half-time scoreline of 16-13.
With the start of the second half came the return of Connacht pressure, particularly at the scrum where referee Craig Evans penalised Corey Domachowski, perhaps unfairly, and gave the visitors field position inside the Cardiff 22.
Danny Wilson was forced to hook Domachowski and introduce Brad Thyer, with the next scrum resulting in a Blues penalty as Connacht walked around, and the game turned on it’s head again as Nick Williams broke with ball in hand, Willis Halaholo carried on the attack, before his pass wide was slapped down by Eoin Griffin.
The Connacht centre took a seat for 10 minutes, and despite the Irish side repelling the first Cardiff Blues attack, eventually Matthew Morgan was able to take advantage of the extra man and crash over on first phase ball, Gareth Anscombe nailing his first conversion since returning from injury.
Moments later he was also crossing for his first Pro14 try of the season after good work in midfield from the fly-half and Halaholo had freed Tom James on the wing who drew the last defender and fed Anscombe. However, Nick Williams had unnecessarily blocked Adeolokun on a dummy run and the score was chalked off.
To add insult to injury Connacht kicked into the corner from the penalty and subsequently drove over from short range with Shane Delahunt the ball carrying beneficiary.
Yet again though Cardiff fought back, and did so well. Returning to the red zone a scrum allowed good first phase ball and Anscombe hit the line at speed, stepping off his left foot and getting his hands through the tackle to offload for Owen Lane to produce a magnificent pick up and stumble over the line for a Pro14 debut try.
A successful conversion made the scores 30-18 at just past the hour mark, however the pendulum soon swung back in Connacht’s favour as they went through a 19-phase attack in the Blues half.
That was seen off by some solid defence, but a sliced Tom James clearance invited pressure back onto us, and although the second attack was seen off, the frustration on all sides was clear as the handbags came out.
Unfortunately it transpires players cannot open palm push to the chest anymore, as rugby slowly becomes a non-contact sport, and Nick Williams was yellow carded for an amalgamation of supposed infringements.
From the resulting penalty Connacht went back to the corner and Delahunt was again over at the back of a driving maul. A missed conversion maintained a seven-point lead, and with nine minutes left and a man light it seemed the away side were in the ascendancy
The return of Anscombe also brings the return of kicking range, as he nailed a penalty from halfway, but that was the pre-cursor to the worst moment of Cardiff Blues play when the fly-half, Garyn Smith and Owen Lane were all bumped off tackles by Pita Ahki.
He fed Thomas Farrell, who was brought down well by Matthew Morgan, but quickly recycled ball eventually found captain John Muldoon out wide who jinked towards the posts and allowed Steve Crosbie an easy conversion.
Backsides were well and truly squeaking at the Arms Park, but Cardiff Blues found some additional energy, boosted by strong performances off the bench, putting together a blue wall and forcing the Connacht kick.
Gareth Anscombe returned well and chased hard, so that when Adeolokun took a quick throw to Tiernan O’Halloran, the pressure forced the full-back into a knock-on. Dave Heffernan was then penalised for a no-arms tackle, and Anscombe made the scores 36-30 with the last kick of the game.
A severely hard-fought victory, majorly due to our own mistakes and inaccuracies, but a vitally important one nonetheless that sees Cardiff Blues leapfrog Connacht in the Guinness Pro14 Conference A table and take fourth spot that currently is the final Champions Cup qualification place.
It also means that, no matter what the result next week, we will be at least in the Champions Cup play-off places on Christmas Day, clear of Zebre and Ospreys below us.
Despite being a definitively below par performance at the defensive set piece, in terms of missed tackles, and due to unnecessary ill-discipline, the win was still secured. Without comparing us directly to the top teams, not every side can play at 100% every week, and winning when you’re under-performing is a very handy trait to possess.
This was a game that last season I don’t think Cardiff Blues would have won, but it’s a credit to the fight and never-say-die attitude that seems to be forming the basis of an impressive team ethic that we got over the line in the end.
Of course there is a lingering concern that a big improvement will be needed against a Glasgow side that has won nine from nine in the Pro14 and hammered Ospreys on Sunday in Swansea despite missing their Scottish international.
However, the way this win over Connacht has boosted our league position means we can go there as massive underdog and give it our absolutely best shot with considerably less pressure on getting a result. Any point at Scotstoun will be a huge one, but we have to go there to back ourselves. Until then, come on Cardiff!!