On a chilly Friday night at the Arms Park, Cardiff Blues won their sixth game in a row across the league and Europe to keep the pressure on Cheetahs in that final Pro14 Conference A play-off spot.
It was perhaps not the performance that Danny Wilson would have envisaged when preparing for the re-arranged game last week, but he will no doubt be pleased with a third bonus-point win in the circumstances, as the season’s final block of fixtures got underway.
After two weeks off, Wilson was able to welcome back the experience of Gethin Jenkins, Fa’ao Filise and Nick Williams to the starting XV, while Willis Halaholo and Matthew Morgan were recalled after recovering from injury.
However, the two weeks off seemed to show in Cardiff Blues early play as they fell behind to a Benetton penalty early on after infringing from a scrum, blew a try scoring opportunity from a five-metre attacking lineout, and then conceded a second kick-able penalty, with New Zealander Marty Banks making it 6-0 after 15 minutes.
The home side were somewhat overplaying with ball-in-hand, resulting in a number of unforced errors, while strike runners were coming onto the ball from too deep, and a messy breakdown area saw possession or momentum lost on too many occasions.
Fortunately the defence was still at the high level it had been before the break, halting Benetton as they marched into the 22 at the mid-point of the half, with Macauley Cook, Fa’ao Filise and Gethin Jenkins all securing loose balls or turnovers.
Cardiff Blues had the opportunity to push for the opening try when turning down a kick-able penalty in favour of the five-metre lineout, but botched the throw. However, from the Benetton clearance, the hosts were able to regroup quicker than their opponents and Jarrod Evans made a half-break towards the halfway line.
Quick ball saw possession moved from left to right, and a delayed Willis Halaholo pass sucked in the outside defender, giving Matthew Morgan the chance to run at Monty Ioane one-on-one.
Stepping off his right foot, Morgan beat the winger on his inside shoulder before drawing the full-back and sending Owen Lane clear down to score his fifth try of the season. Evans converted to make it 7-6, and would be back on the tee just a few minutes later.
Turnover ball in midfield saw Evans pop up wider in the line, with time to step off his left foot and break a tackle to run clear into the Benetton half. Just as is so often the case, Lloyd Williams was running a superb supporting line on his shoulder, and had the awareness to draw the final defender before releasing Olly Robinson to score a second try in five minutes.
Evans was once again successful with the conversion, nudging Cardiff Blues to a 14-6 lead, but would end up at fault as Benetton got themselves over the try line shortly afterwards.
With one attack from the away side successfully repelled by a good Morgan covering tackle and a knock-on, Cardiff had the chance to clear their lines from a solid scrum. This got even easier when referee John Lacey awarded a free-kick to the hosts with Benetton pushing early.
However, an inexplicable quick-tap was taken from deep inside our own 22 by Lloyd, before an equally inexplicable decision from Evans saw him go for the chip kick. That was charged down by Giorgio Bronzini, and the scrum-half got himself on the scoresheet for the visitors.
Banks kicked the conversion, but Evans replied with a long distance penalty and Aled Summerhill produced a good tackle to stop a charging Ioane to keep the score at 17-13 for half-time.
The second half started with similar attacking frustrations as the first half for Cardiff Blues, with Macauley Cook not finding Nick Williams with an offload after a break down the left, before George Earle’s sloppy pass was too low for Willis Halaholo in midfield.
Fortunately the half-time introduction of Tomos Williams for an injured Lloyd had injected some pace, and when he released Summerhill down the right wing, it was the start of a move that would take us to a third try.
Interplay between Josh Turnbull and Scott Andrews took possession towards the redzone, before a Benetton infringement gave us penalty advantage. With a free play in the back pocket, Tomos Williams spotted an Ellis Jenkins run and produced the perfect dink over the defence for the flanker to score.
Evans kept up his 100% record off the tee, but would again suffer the embarrassment of being charged down in open play, this time directly from kick-off.
Scramble defence prevented Benetton scoring straight away, but the visitors stayed patient and eventually Ioane was on hand to crash over in the corner. Ian McKinley, now on to take over kicking duties, nailed the conversion, and once again the away side had pegged Cardiff Blues back to make it 24-20 after 50 minutes.
Despite the errors costing us a comfortable lead, Cardiff were still able to keep the pressure on Benetton’s defence, and soon forced another penalty that would return us to their 22.
First phase ball saw Aled Summerhill take us up towards the five-metre line, before Kris Dacey and George Earle went close with tight carries. Another infringement from the Italians gave Tomos the chance to tap-and-go from close range, and although he was stopped inches short, Nick Williams was on hand to burrow over.
A first bonus-point try since early November, and just our third this season, but a timely one at this stage of the campaign.
Of course it meant nothing without a win on the night to accompany it though, and the task of securing that was made all the more harder when Tomos Williams was forced off with a head injury in that carry before Nick’s try. With Lloyd already off the pitch, there would be 25 minutes of no recognised scrum-half on the field for Cardiff Blues to finish the game.
Jarrod Evans was the first to take on the mantle, switching inside from his usual side of the half-back partnership, but it quickly became apparent the young fly-half wasn’t cut out for 9. An up-and-down afternoon for Evans, but one he will no doubt learn from and come back stronger as a result.
It would Ellis Jenkins who took over from Evans at scrum-half, with shades of Mauro Bergamasco filling in at nine for Italy a few years back, as Seb Davies came on to add an extra body up front.
Although Ellis’ skillset saw him fare surprisingly well, the attack was not functioning at the level it was previously, and subsequently Benetton were able to see more of the ball and ramp up the pressure.
Matthew Morgan did fantastically well to hold up the ball as Marco Lazzaroni crashed over the line, before Rey Lee-Lo secured a crucial turnover inside the Cardiff Blues 22, as the home side frustrated a Benetton side unable to convert pressure into points.
With time running out they managed to score their third try of the game through replacement hooker Tomas Baravalle at the back of a rolling maul, and when McKinley’s chip from the restart was gathered by Luca Sperandio there were alarm bells ringing around the Arms Park.
However, Seb Davies assisted by Kris Dacey secured the all-important turnover with the clock red, and secured a fourth straight Pro14 win for Cardiff Blues to close the gap on Cheetahs to just five points with four games still to play, including a trip to Bloemfontein.
In the circumstances, the end result is probably one that Danny Wilson will be pleased with, considering almost a third of the game was played with a recognised scrum-half on the field. He will also now that there are areas of the game that can be improved on though, specifically around the accuracy of the attack and breakdown work when we’re in possession.
Ulster next week will provide a stern test, despite their struggles this season, and is a crucial game to get things right in as the last regular season game at the Arms Park this season, and the next fixture after Saturday being the European Challenge Cup quarter-final trip to Edinburgh.
The wheels keep rolling on this Cardiff Blues push for Guinness Pro14 play-off and European Champions Cup rugby, make sure you’re a part of it at the Arms Park this Saturday. Come on Cardiff!