The European Challenge Cup pool stages drew to a successful conclusion for Cardiff Blues with victory over Lyon in France on Saturday night. After last week’s win against Toulouse, Cardiff’s French exploits have now been dubbed ‘Le double double’.
It rounds off a pool stage that has seen Danny Wilson’s men qualify for European knockout stages for the second year in a row, having finished top of what was undoubtedly this season’s Challenge Cup pool of death.
With that top spot secured at the Arms Park last week, Wilson had chosen to rest a few familiar faces, as Fa’ao Filise, Nick Williams and Owen Lane were left out, while Willis Halaholo took the opportunity to have minor knee surgery, and George Earle wasn’t risked for what was likely to be a dead rubber.
There was an outside chance that a home quarter-final could be secured, however it depended on Connacht losing to Oyonnax in Galway, and they subsequently went on to record a bonus-point win.
With that in mind, Saturday evening’s game had nothing riding on it as Cardiff Blues kicked off. Unfortunately it appeared the visitors had taken that far too seriously as Talasina Tuifua was able to make yards on the kick return far too easily.
He found Jone Tuva on his shoulder who broke halfway before popping the ball up to Dylan Cretin, with the blindside flanker able to round off the attack and score the first try of the game within 30 seconds. Lionel Beauxis kicked the conversion as a shell shocked Cardiff Blues attempted to gather themselves together.
Fortunately the floodgates were prevented from opening by a stubborn away side who quickly got back into the game, retaining the majority of possession and territory, and almost replying within minutes as Gareth Anscombe chipped through but Blaine Scully couldn’t gather the ball, with the try line waiting.
A flurry of very kick-able penalties were turned down by captain Gethin Jenkins, with the ethos clearly being to come and play, as Jarrod Evans kicked Cardiff Blues into the corner.
However, some scrappy lineout work, a dogged Lyon defence, and a Cardiff team missing some regular big ball carriers, resulted in the score staying at 0-7 for the next 20 minutes.
In the end the score was added to again by the home team, who take advantage of more sloppy Blues work to extend their lead. Another lineout went astray in midfield, with big tighthead prop Stephane Clement streaking downfield at a rate of knots.
Anscombe did well to fell the rampaging Frenchman, but with nobody covering at full-back the eyes of legendary scrum-half Freddie Michalak lit up. His kick was perfectly weighted in behind, and when the bounce went away from an under pressure Alex Cuthbert, Pierre-Louis Barassi was all too happy to touch the ball down.
Beauxis missed the conversion on this occasion, and this would be crucial as half-time approached with Cardiff Blues continuing to have the best of the possession and field position in an attempt to get back into the game.
Throughout the first 40 minutes the best player on the pitch by some distance had been Jarrod Evans, and it was the young fly-half who would be the catalyst for the visitors finally getting on the scoreboard.
From a seemingly innocuous phase in midfield he received the ball at stand-off before shifting the point of attack with a show-and-go, fending off the defender and breaking clear. Lloyd Williams supported with a perfectly timed tracking run as Evans drew the final defender and sent the scrum-half over close to the posts.
Evans converted and all of a sudden the game had changed from what at one point threatened to be a repeat of the damp squib that was Sale away, to a finely balanced encounter heading into the second half.
Despite not being able to do what Lyon had done to us from kick-off in the first half, it was still Cardiff Blues in the ascendency as the second half got underway and another very kick-able penalty was turned down early doors, as Evans returned us to the corner.
The difference this time seemed to be some ringing half-time words, as the lineout was secured by Damian Welch and the rolling maul got to work. Marching towards the try line all seemed to be in order, until Lyon collapsed the drive and a penalty try was awarded.
Suddenly the score was 12-14, but a third concentration slip soon let Lyon back into the game as Cardiff Blues under-committed to a defensive maul on halfway, and the home side began barrelling towards the 22.
Hooker Virgile Lacombe burst off the back of the drive, and although he was tackled well by Jarrod Evans, the fly-half found himself stuck on the wrong side of the breakdown and cynically killed the ball. 10 minutes in the sin bin swiftly followed.
In an enthralling opening 20 minutes of the second half the pendulum would swing again though, as Alex Cuthbert was wiped out taking a high ball, and try scorer Barassi received a yellow card to even the teams up at 14 apiece.
Lyon still managed to extend their lead though, as they won a scrum penalty and Lionel Beauxis notched his third kick of the evening.
At 18-12 it again seemed like the home side would run away with the game, as little errors crept into the Cardiff Blues game. Damian Welch knocked on to scupper good turnover ball, while Cuthbert was left isolated on the right wing and the turnover was conceded.
However, with 15 minutes to go, there was another moment of magic from that man Jarrod Evans, who produced an almost identical show-and-go move to break the line, with the only change being Tomos Williams had stepped off the bench to offer the supporting run and dive full length over the line.
The simple conversion was successful from Evans, and out of nowhere Cardiff Blues were back ahead.
Lyon did attempt to get back into the game in the last 10 minutes, but like Toulouse last week, their attacking strategy was based around a power game of big, direct runners with the occasional offload. A well organised Cardiff Blues blitz was able to soak up the pressure comfortably.
Excellent turnovers from Ellis Jenkins and Josh Turnbull kept the home side at bay, but when the referee harshly penalised Brad Thyer at the scrum late on it seemed Lyon may have a last chance to attack from inside the Blues 22.
However, a botched move saw them knock-on from first phase ball, and Cardiff secured another top rate European win to finish with a record of five wins and a loss in the Challenge Cup pool stages.
With Edinburgh losing away to Stade Francais on Saturday evening it sets up a battle of the capital cities in the quarter-finals, as Danny Wilson’s men will travel to Murrayfield over Easter weekend for what is sure to be a battle of a fixture.
In the short-term though there is definite momentum to be taken from two excellent European wins as part of the squad head into a Anglo-Welsh Cup fortnight, while a number of first-teamers take a well-earned rest after a physically testing fixture block.
It would be great to see a big Cardiff Blues following in Edinburgh for the quarter-final, so get those permission slips in and practising your kilt wearing. Come on Cardiff!