It was a disappointing end to a run of three straight Welsh derbies for Cardiff Blues as they suffered a narrow defeat to the Ospreys, extending a run of defeats at the Liberty Stadium that stretches back to 2005.
Danny Wilson had named a strong starting XV for the first game of 2018, recalling Kris Dacey, Anton Peikrishvili, Lloyd Williams and Alex Cuthbert to the starting XV, while keeping Dillon Lewis, Ellis Jenkins and Tomos Williams on the bench.
However, for the fourth game in a row, there was a late change to the announced team as Jarrod Evans withdrew through illness, triggering a re-shuffle with Gareth Anscombe stepping up from full-back to fly-half, Matthew Morgan coming off the bench to start, and Steve Shingler returning from injury to appear amongst the replacements.
It was a strong start to the game from the visitors as Josh Navidi won a penalty in front of the posts from just the second phase of play, Gareth Anscombe gladly opening the scoring from the kicking tee.
Ospreys tried to hit back straight away, using an instantly dominant scrum as a platform, but some solid phase-play defence from Cardiff Blues kept them at bay, Rey Lee-Lo again leading the backs valiantly after a tough outing at the Liberty Stadium last season for the Samoan.
Some clever tactical kicking from Lloyd Williams and Anscombe managed to alleviate the pressure on the away side’s try line, and eventually resulted in some attacking field position through a scrum on the Ospreys 10 metre line.
With a decent platform to play off Anscombe sprung into life with ball-in-hand, putting Lee-Lo through a gap and on his way to the try line, only to be brought down short by an excellent cover tackle from Jeff Hassler.
Although the centre’s offload did not go to Cardiff Blues hand, Sam Davies was bundled into touch, and from the resulting lineout came the first try. Josh Navidi peeled off the back of the maul to go agonisingly close to the try line, but setting it up perfectly for Nick Williams to burrow over on the blindside.
Anscombe missed the conversion, but a 0-8 lead after 20 minutes was a dream start for the visitors in this crucial encounter. However, in typical Cardiff fashion, we proceeded to shoot ourselves in the foot.
Firstly, Matthew Morgan went to counter-attack from a Rhys Webb box kick, but Ospreys wing Hassler read his intentions like a book as the full-back went to move down the blindside. As the pass went out to Owen Lane, the Canadian was already in position and gladly accepted the free opportunity. A valiant Alex Cuthbert effort not enough to prevent the try.
The Blues did just nudge back ahead when Big Nick, who was imperious at the breakdown all afternoon, secured a penalty over the ball and Anscombe provided the points of tee.
Unfortunately things went wrong again from the subsequent kick-off. Lane received possession in the 22, choosing to kick the ball back up the field, only to shank his effort with disastrous consequences.
As the ball landed in midfield the forwards performed the kick chase from offside positions. With the penalty advantage in his pocket, Dan Biggar went for the spectacular and it came off perfectly as he dinked the ball over the top, gathered his own kick and fed Webb on his shoulder to go under the posts.
From 0-8 up to 14-11 down in five minutes, and all through unforced errors of our own. It certainly changed the picture of the game very quickly.
Biggar and Anscombe exchanged penalties as the Ospreys look to take advantage of the momentum built just before half-time, but handling errors and resolute Cardiff Blues defending ensured the score remained 14-17 at the break.
The first 10 minutes of the second half followed much the same pattern as the end of the first period, with errors dominating but Ospreys having the best of the possession and territory.
Then on the 50th minute a breakthrough came for the visitors. Cardiff Blues secured turnover ball, but it was kicked away with a 4-on-1 overlap on the right wing. With the visitors now out of position, Dan Biggar produced a perfect cross-field kick over Nick Williams, who found himself on the left wing, for Ashley Beck.
Beck stepped inside the covering Owen Lane and offloaded for Justin Tipuric in support, before Rhys Webb was on hand to produce a finish for his second try of the game. Biggar added the extras for a 10-point lead.
It seemed like things would go from bad to worse for Cardiff as Ospreys returned on the attack with a lineout in our 22. Alun Wyn Jones was lifted, seemingly for quite a lengthy amount of time, and while in the air was wiped out by the Blues forwards launching their maul defence.
Referee Nigel Owens suggested the fact that Jones was held in the air longer than usual was a mitigating factor in him getting taken out, which eventually resulted in him leaving the field, and only a penalty was awarded. A lucky one for the visitors though.
This did not abate the Ospreys attack at all though, as they remained in the 22 and ramped up the pressure. As Beck carried for the line he was stopped just short, but from the next phase of play Cuthbert flew out of the line far too early and was yellow carded for the cynicism of the act.
After a sustained period of defence the break in play was welcomed by the Cardiff Blues, who completely switched off as Dan Biggar shaped to kick the ball into touch, only to turn and hammer the ball cross field for a wide open Justin Tipuric. Not a moment to be proud of.
Biggar missed the conversion, but with a 15-point deficit and a man in the sin bin, it seemed Cardiff were destined for another miserable outing at the Liberty Stadium.
However, whereas in previous years we’d have let Ospreys get away with the game, the steely determination within the squad finally kicked into effect and made the rest of the game far more respectable.
Despite having 14-men a multi-phase forward moving attack saw Cardiff Blues get into the redzone for the first time, thanks to a clever offload from Rey Lee-Lo and a strong carry from Owen Lane, before the forwards took the ball close to the line.
A high tempo kept the ball moving, before a dart down the short side saw Ellis Jenkins throw a hopeful miss-pass to Lane. Left with a lot of work to do, the young winger brushed off Dan Evans before carrying Owen Watkin and Sam Davies with him for a world class finish in the corner.
Anscombe’s excellent touchline conversion made it an eight point game, and Cardiff Blues suddenly smelled blood. From the restart Tomos Williams kicked long, before a lung busting chase by Josh Turnbull produced a top tackle, and Kris Dacey was on hand to win a crucial penalty.
Although the resulting lineout was lost, the Ospreys clearance still offered us field position. From that Steve Shingler collected his own chip over the top before finding Tomos on his shoulder. The ball then went through the hands of Cuthbert and Lee-Lo before Garyn Smith was able to motor through a gap that opened up in front of him.
Another successful Anscombe conversion left the scores with just a point between them, and with four minutes left on the clock there was still time for a now full-strength Cardiff Blues to nick an unlikely victory.
However, a kick out on the full from Tomos and a knock-on from Navidi ended hopes of a dramatic finish to the game, which was ultimately overshadowed by a serious looking injury to Owen Watkin in the last throws of the game. Best wishes go out to him.
In the end it was another frustrating Welsh derby defeat for Cardiff Blues, extending that losing streak at the Liberty Stadium to 13 years. It feels like we just can’t buy a win in these inter-region games at the moment, except when the Dragons are involved.
There are definite positives to focus on though. Firstly, the comeback at the end was ultimately unsuccessful in terms of getting the win, but it was hugely important to finish with some momentum behind us going into next week, and for securing a bonus point that keeps us in the automatic Challenge Cup qualification places.
It is also another indication of the backbone the team now have. Whereas in previous years the Ospreys would have gone on to put 40 points on us after going 29-14 ahead, the scoreline was a much more respectable affair.
Secondly, there were areas of our game that were very solid. Defensively again there was a good performance, with no Ospreys tries coming from manufactured line breaks, while the maul was a dominant feature of our play for the second week in a row. Particularly on Ospreys lineouts it was effective at stopping their drive.
Finally, individually there was a lot to be impressed with. Josh Turnbull once again nailed his place as ‘most underrated player in Wales’, while Josh Navidi and Nick Williams were excellent in the back row.
Rey Lee-Lo continued some fine form, and Garyn Smith and Ellis Jenkins were effective off the bench, but the main name to be mentioned is Owen Lane. Putting aside the shanked clearance kick, the young man seems to be maturing as a rugby player in front of our eyes. Not only is his physicality and speed superb, but the intelligence of his running lines are a joy to behold.
It was a tough afternoon for the tight five at the scrum, and around the park in general, but missing the likes of Matthew Rees and Seb Davies, as well as leaving Gethin Jenkins and George Earle on the bench, was always going to make it a tough ask to match up with an experienced and heavy Ospreys pack.
Overall, take away that 20 minutes after half-time and there is 60 minutes of good performance there. Unfortunately, it’s yet another Welsh derby defeat when a win was within reach, and make it 12 years since the last win at the Liberty Stadium. Something has to change in that respect.
For now though the focus moves away from the Pro14 back to Europe with the visit of Toulouse next week. If we can take the positives from Saturday and use the change of competition to re-focus on getting results, then we can do another job on the French side. Come on Cardiff!!!