Another famous European night at the Cardiff Arms Park on Sunday saw Cardiff Blues complete the double over Toulouse and secure top spot in the Challenge Cup’s pool two ahead of the final round of fixtures this weekend.
Despite a particularly non-family friendly kick-off time of 17:30 on a Sunday evening, over 7,000 people packed into the old ground, creating a proper Arms Park atmosphere. In response, the players certainly delivered a performance to be proud of.
Danny Wilson had made a number of changes to the matchday squad after two consecutive defeats in Welsh derbies, bringing in the 114-year-old front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Fa’ao Filise, as well as recalling Ellis Jenkins, George Earle, Tomos Williams and Garyn Smith to the starting XV.
The changes certainly paid dividends early on, as Cardiff Blues were the dominant side on the opening exchanges. Kicking an early penalty into the corner they were held at bay by Toulouse, until it seemed Nick Williams had broken the deadlock with a trademark disguised drive from the back of the ruck.
However, Ian Tempest ruled the number eight to have been in an offside position when reaching back to collect the ball, before coming back for the penalty Cardiff Blues had the advantage for. Jarrod Evans opened the scoring with three points, rather than seven.
Next up it was Toulouse who threatened the opposition try line, as they set up camp inside the Cardiff Blues 22, but some sturdy defensive work and targeted breakdown competition from the back row prevented the French side from getting on the scoreboard.
Having cleared our lines, it was time for Alex Cuthbert to offer a reminder of his undoubted talent as he cut a beautiful line through midfield and headed off for the line, only to be hauled down 10 metres out. Unfortunately his offload didn’t go to hand and Toulouse were able to clear.
After a back and forth opening 25 minutes, that clearance provided the platform for the visitors to score the first try of the game. Cardiff Blues repelled the initial attack, but Tomos Williams’ clearance kick to touch was taken quickly by Cheslin Kolbe. Thomas Ramos cut through the defence and found Kolbe again on his shoulder, only for Cuthbert to produce a try saving tackle.
Toulouse recovered quickly though and, although it seemed like they had sent the attack down a blind alley on the left wing, some magnificent handling from Joe Tekori and Ramos allowed Kolbe to just flop over the try line. Ramos converted the score worthy of any try of the week competition.
At 3-7 down the game hung in the balance, but it only ever takes on piece of play to shift the momentum in a game, and this was no different. Jarrod Evans kicked long to find imposing number eight Tekori, with the Samoan proceeding to gallop back down the field. Cuthbert had the unenviable task of going up against the man mountain but, despite an unconventional hit, stopped his opponent dead in his tracks and won the penalty, leading to a huge ovation.
There was a need for Cardiff Blues to capitalise on that euphoria, and it took a moment of individual brilliance from Gareth Anscombe to do so. Stepping up from full-back into first receiver he chipped over the Toulouse defence and collected before drawing the last defender and sending scrum-half Tomos under the posts.
Evans notched the conversion to put Cardiff Blues ahead, but it seemed the lead would be short-lived when flanker Semi Kunatani powered away after a kick over the top. He found Ramos on his shoulder who scored the try, but the crowd intervened as Toulouse tried to take a quick conversion, and the TMO ruled out the score for a majorly forward pass.
With the clock ticking into red at the end of the first half Ramos dropped back into the pocket and kicked a drop goal, to tie the scores at 10-10 going into half-time.
The psychological effect of that drop goal was evident for Toulouse as they flew out of the blocks in the second half, again entering the Cardiff Blues 22 as they searched for their second try. Yet again though it was the hosts who made the decisive play as Garyn Smith made the crucial interception and set off on counter-attack.
Toulouse did return to the Cardiff Blues half upon the conclusion of that attack, with Ramos kicking a second drop goal, but that would be the last points they scored in the game.
They did continue to threaten, but the interception had clearly had an effect on Toulouse who rapidly narrowed and returned to a one-up power game. Although not a complex system to defend, it takes Cardiff Blues matching the physicality of the French ball carriers, as well as retaining a level of concentration and work rate to pack the fringes of the breakdown.
With their attacking threat increasingly nullified it was now down to Cardiff Blues to fashion points scoring of some sort, with Danny Wilson switching half-backs in an attempt to make this happen.
From their very first play Lloyd Williams fed Steve Shingler, and after a superb dummy run from Nick Williams, Cuthbert was put through a hole in the defence. Willis Halaholo was on his shoulder in support, before Anscombe popped up on the left and managed to crash over in the corner.
The Welsh international failed to convert his own try, leaving Cardiff Blues just a two-point lead, which wouldn’t be added to despite both Ellis Jenkins and Josh Turnbull touching down over the try line. Referee Ian Tempest ruled both attempts out for similar reasons to the earlier Nick Williams effort.
Despite this there did not seem to be a time when Cardiff Blues were without control of the game. This was largely thanks to some superb tactical kicking from Shingler, coupled with the desire and commitment of both the kick chase, and defensive line. Toulouse just had no answer to a home side giving 110%.
Gareth Anscombe kicked a late penalty to extend the lead, after some superb breakdown work from Dillon Lewis and Brad Thyer, which was enough to see the home side over the line for another memorable win, and seal top spot in the pool.
Unfortunately it is unlikely to result in a home quarter-final for Cardiff Blues, with a bonus-point win required in Lyon on Saturday before hoping bottom place Oyonnax can beat pool winners Connacht in Galway. However, as ever with knockout rugby, you have to be in it to win it.
The bigger picture is the momentum and belief that this could re-install in the side after a tough festive period is massive. With a positive performance against Lyon on Saturday the majority of the senior members of the squad can have three weeks off while the Anglo-Welsh Cup is on knowing they are playing very well.
It was great to have Cardiff Arms Park bouncing, and hopefully he will see that a few more times this season as the results stay at a level. Just got to keep plugging away! Come on Cardiff!!