Cardiff Blues bounced back from the disappointment of the performance at the AJ Bell Stadium to secure top spot in the European Challenge Cup’s pool two with victory over Sale Sharks.
After being nil’d in the reverse fixture in Salford last week, the focus of the pre-match media had been on how Danny Wilson’s men would bounce back from the confidence draining result. With supporters having spent money and travelled a long way to get to the North-West, the players owed us something.
The head coach was boosted by the return of first team players Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi and Willis Halaholo, however there was late disappointment as Gethin Jenkins failed a fitness test and was forced to withdraw from the squad.
Despite that it was a strong start from a home side intent to make their mark on the game early on. Nick Williams made the early running with a trademark pick-and-go from the base of the ruck, before finding Tomos Williams on his shoulder. The scrum half was brought down and Cardiff could not capitalise on the attacking position.
That would be the story of the half for the hosts who threatened with ball in hand, particularly in the first 20 minutes, but a mixture of handling errors brought on by atrocious weather and indecision from playmakers stunted progress.
In the end it fell to Gareth Anscombe to open the scoring with a penalty after 10 minutes, the first Cardiff Blues points in 123 minutes of play.
There were half chances for Aled Summerhill and Matthew Morgan to manufacture line breaks during the remainder of the half, although the best chance came for Seb Davies as the lock thundered towards the try line after a wicked kick-step, only to lose the ball in the contact as a score beckoned.
Sale, with the wind at their backs playing towards the clubhouse in the first half, had their own moments though. Some referee assistance gave them a scrum in the Cardiff Blues 22, while there was also two or three lineouts in the redzone and a clean break from Denny Solomona.
However, an excellent covering tackle from Tomos Williams, a Josh Strauss knock-on and some terrific lineout steals from Damian Welch dug us out of a few defensive situations, and restricted Sale to just a single penalty throughout the first half with the elements in their favour.
That 3-3 scoreline at half-time seemed to give Cardiff Blues confidence as they returned to the field with the wind at their backs.
Securing possession early on in the half the home side set up camp in the Sale 22, and a Tomos Williams orchestrated attack with strong carries from Anton Peikrishvili and Owen Lane eventually created space for Matthew Morgan to cross out wide.
A palpable sense of relief swept across CAP as Nipper managed to bag a try at last, but disappointingly Cardiff did not capitalise on their momentum and back of the elements. The confidence knock taken last week was plain to see.
Anscombe missed the conversion, but traded penalties with Cliff as the half wore on into a battle of attrition. The sideways rain and cold temperatures not helping.
Cardiff tried to slow the game down and preserve their lead through a series of kicks and compact attacking phases. One kick from Willis Halaholo almost put Aled Summerhill over in the corner, however another from Tomos managed to run dead from inside our own 22.
Fortunately some strong Blues defence, as well as a rather blunt Sale Sharks side, allowed the hosts to see out the game after a third Anscombe penalty pushed us outside losing bonus point range.
Two late lineout drives were seen off, the second with the assistance of the referee, and a 14-6 victory saw Cardiff Blues return to the summit of pool two before rounds five and six are played next month.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, or particularly exciting, but what matters is that the win was secured. After last week’s performance that was all-important to bounce back and avoid falling to three successive defeats.
There were encouraging areas, with the scrum dominating again as Anton Peikrishvili put in arguably his best performance in a Cardiff Blues jersey. The defensive lineout was also impressive as we successfully competed with Sale, particularly in dangerous attacking positions.
Importantly the effort on kick chase was much better and we forced the visitors into two handling errors under the high ball in the first half, while young wingers Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill put in big shifts and actually managed to get their hands on the ball.
A reserved mention for Josh Navidi though who, judging by his performance on Sunday, is not about to become a player that neglects to put his all into club matches once Team Wales come calling. An all-action 80 minutes from the flanker saw him deservedly named the official man-of-the-match.
One win does not make the season, however, and big challenges await Danny Wilson’s men over the next two weeks as we go into two Welsh festive derbies in five days.
First up will be the Dragons, and the level of performance is going to have to raise again if we are to take anything away from Rodney Parade. Bernard Jackman will be whipping his players up into a frenzy, and the ground will be rocking for a Boxing Day special.
Cardiff Blues will need to step up in terms of commitment, accuracy and intensity. With nine days to get bodies right and the game plan back on track there is no excuses. The time to kick on is now, come on Cardiff!!