The first of the Welsh derby spoils returned to the capital on Boxing Day as Cardiff Blues battled the weather and the opposition to overcome the Dragons at Rodney Parade.
In the midst of a torrential downpour it was a story of grit and determination from the away side’s forwards, as well as taking your chances when on offer, as the hosts failed to capitalise on having more possession and territory.
Danny Wilson had made two changes to the XV that beat Sale in Europe the previous week, as Rey Lee-Lo and Olly Robinson came into the squad that travelled East, while Gethin Jenkins and Tom James returned to fitness to take their places on the bench.
It was almost a dream start for Cardiff Blues as Garyn Smith produced an interception and Dragons strayed offside on the turnover ball, but Gareth Anscombe couldn’t capitalise as kicking into the wind and the rain became problematic.
After that chance went begging Dragons began to get a foothold in the game as tey dominated possession and set up camp in the Cardiff Blues 22. A chip in behind was well defended by Aled Summerhill, but resulted in a dangerous attacking scrum on the five metre line.
After three penalties given harshly against Brad Thyer by assistant referee Adam Jones, the young loosehead was sent to the sin bin. However Dragons could not take advantage of the extra man by knocking on in the red zone, and thanks to Seb Davies stealing a lineout.
With Thyer taking ten minutes off there was an earlier than expected return to action for Gethin Jenkins, only for a big carry from former Cardiff Blues number eight James Sheekey to knock Melon out completely. The club captain was said to be alright after the game, but will miss the Scarlets clash on New Year’s Eve through return to play protocols.
Uncontested scrums lead to the threat of a rugby match breaking out, and an excellent Gavin Henson kick forced Owen Lane to conceded a lineout deep in his own 22. Another attack was thwarted though as an excellent defensive read from Rey Lee-Lo allowed Cardiff to counter ruck and clear their lines.
That 20 minutes of defending should have taken a lot out of the visitors, however the Blues kept their energy levels high as Thyer, now back on the field, won a turnover in midfield and Anscombe counter attacked with Matthew Morgan.
Neither player could catch the full-backs grubber kick through, but from the resulting 22 Anscombe’s high kick was knocked on by Hallam Amos and Cory Hill collected the ball in an offside position. After 27 minutes the deadlock was finally broken by the Cardiff Blues fly-half.
Although a chance to extend the lead was missed a few minutes later, it wouldn’t be too long before the visitors were back on the scoreboard as we mounted out first multi-phase attack in Dragons territory.
Ground made from first phase ball by Anscombe set the tone for a high tempo and wide ranging attack, which eventually resulted in a lovely inside pass from Lee-Lo allowing Owen Lane to blast through the tackle of Henson and feed Summerhill to dive over in the corner.
On first viewing it appeared as if Lane may have spilled possession in the process of offloading to his opposite winger. However, on second viewing it was actually knocked backwards by the covering Joe Davies and some excellent footwork from Summerhill allowed him to nudge the ball over the line and dive on it in time.
Anscombe missed the conversion from out wide to leave the score at 0-8, however Henson was able to cut the deficit on the stroke of half-time after Macauley Cook was penalised for a high tackle.
After spending 10 minutes trying to get warm and dry, it was a nightmare start to the second half for Cardiff Blues as Anscombe kicked the kick-off out on the full and then a penalty was conceded at the subsequent scrum.
However, a good defensive set ended Dragons attack and then two successive scrum penalties won put the away side down into the opposition 22, with the wind and rain now at their backs.
A strong lineout drive provided a good platform for the attack, and a high tempo stretched Dragons so that after Owen Lane, Matthew Morgan and Gareth Anscombe had carried close to the line, a Tomos Williams miss-pass was able to cut-out the half-hearted blitz of Gavin Henson and allow Rey Lee-Lo to celebrate his new contract with an easy try.
The conversion was successful from Gareth Anscombe, and the 12 point lead remained as Henson missed a penalty at the same end his opposite number had so much trouble in the first half. Only difference being is that Cardiff would make him pay for the error.
As the clock ticked towards the hour mark another penalty for the Blues resulted in an attacking lineout on the Dragons 22. First phase ball saw Rey Lee-Lo on a crash ball line, but the Samoan was able to offload and allow Matthew Morgan to ease past Ashton Hewitt one-on-one and feed Tom James who slid over the line from a yard out.
With a 19 point lead and three tries on the board it seemed like Cardiff Blues might run away with the game but for the introduction of Sarel Pretorius and the removal of Gavin Henson adding an extra dimension to the Dragons attack.
After over an hour of strong defence, the Cardiff players were taken by surprise by the sudden injection of pace as the hosts snuck inside the red zone before Lloyd Fairbrother crashed over on the left wing.
Panic bells then soon properly started sounding a few minutes later as the Dragons kicked a penalty to the corner and launched a lineout drive that saw Kirby Myhill penalised for collapsing and a penalty try awarded. From a 19-point advantage the Cardiff Blues lead was cut to just five and they faced eight minutes with a man short.
Fortunately there is a steely determination to this Cardiff Blues team, a noticeable and drastic change from previous years whereby we would have rolled over in a circumstance such as this. Not this season though as a Seb Davies lineout steal and some dogged defence secured a well-earned Welsh derby win.
As the players made their way over to the travelling fans in the uncovered Rodney Parade terrace, there was almost a shared sense of confidence returning. Every side will have one howler of a performance per season, which the away game to Sale Sharks certainly was, but it’s how you bounce back from that which matters.
The backbone shown by the players to quickly find their feet again at home to Sale and here against Dragons is particularly impressive given the dreadful weather in both games. A huge level of commitment and passion shown is always a positive, and that moment between players and supporters at the end of the game made up for Sale away.
It’s no good producing performances like that if you can’t back it up though, and that’s what we’ll need to do and more when Scarlets come to the Arms Park on New Year’s Eve. Beating the reigning Champions will be no mean feat.
We can’t afford to let the Turks back into the game like we did for Dragons in the last 20 minutes on Boxing Day, while we’ll need to continue the trend of taking try-scoring chances when on offer, and follow that up by not reducing the tempo of attack immediately after scoring.
Fingers crossed that injury worries for Tomos Williams, Rey Lee-Lo and Anton Peikrishvili are overcome in time for the clash, with Fa’ao Filise now free to play again and a possibility that Ellis Jenkins could return to action.
In front of a full house it promises to be a great occasion, so make sure you bring your shouting voices. Come on Cardiff!!!