Cardiff Blues reached the semi-finals of European competition for the fifth time after winning out over Edinburgh in the battle of the in-form Guinness Pro14 teams at Murrayfield on Saturday.
It was a superb performance in cold and wet conditions in Scotland, and the celebrations of the players and a loud travelling contingent were well deserved. A day to be proud of.
Danny Wilson had named arguably his strongest 23-man squad of the season, despite leaving Seb Davies out of the starting XV, with Josh Turnbull named at lock, while Josh Navidi and Gareth Anscombe returned from Team Wales duty to line-up at flanker and full-back, respectively.
A frenetic start to the game saw both sides attempting to assert dominance at the breakdown, with the referee being the main focus of attention in the early exchanges.
Mathieu Raynal penalised Edinburgh first, for not rolling away, but Jarrod Evans couldn’t take advantage, before the hosts were adjudged to have successfully secured a turnover and then Nick Williams was pinged on the floor twice. Very little, if any, difference between each incident though.
Unfortunately during the first 10 minutes we were forced into the first change of the evening, when George Earle picked up a shoulder injury and Seb Davies was pressed into action early on.
Cardiff Blues tried to put the disruption aside to get a foothold in the game, but mistakes saw field position given up, as a Nick offload only found an Edinburgh hand, before an Evans cross-kick wasn’t gathered cleanly. Eventually Josh Navidi was penalised for not rolling away, and Jaco van der Walt opened the scoring from the tee.
However, this would spark the visitors into life, and from the restart Navidi was on hand to secure a turnover. Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe made good yards off first phase ball, before Rey Lee-Lo took us up to the five-metre line.
With front foot ball Jarrod Evans was able to pick a cross-field kick into space on the far touchline, and although at first it looked like Nathan Fowles would cover comfortably, the Edinburgh scrum-half made a right mess of things to allow a waiting Ellis Jenkins the opportunity to claim the loose ball and score the first try of the game.
Evans kicked the conversion and Cardiff Blues were on the up as Owen Lane took us back to the five-metre line, only for Dougie Fife to kill the ball and then the visitors to lose possession at the resulting lineout.
We weren’t out of the Edinburgh half for long though, and again it was the kicking game that would pay dividends.
This time it was Anscombe coming into the line out wide from full-back who grubber kicked the the ball in behind Blair Kinghorn covering on the left wing. The Scottish international tracked back but couldn’t secure possession and Lee-Lo pounced on the loose ball before having the awareness and composure to offload for Scully to score.
A second Evans conversion followed to afford Cardiff a 14-3 lead on the half hour mark, and that’s how it would stay until half-time, although the Blues did have the chance to increase the gap with Lane bursting into the redzone and Navidi securing a turnover in the Edinburgh 22.
Further chances came after the break, with Jarrod Evans quickly onto the tee after an Edinburgh infringement, but the fly-half’s first effort fell short before he nailed the second following another successful Navidi jackal. In between those attempts, Jaco van der Walt was able to keep the hosts in touch for a 17-6 scoreline.
Cardiff Blues kept the attacking pressure up, as Owen Lane burst through the Edinburgh defence from an inside pass, and when Edinburgh knocked on while making a tackle, Rhys Gill and Anton Peikrishvili turned the screw at the scrum. Evans gladly kicked his second penalty of the half with 15 minutes to go.
However, Edinburgh’s current five-match unbeaten run has been based on a never-say-die attitude, and led by star man Blair Kinghorn they stormed into the Cardiff 22 with only a last ditch effort from Lane and Gareth Anscombe denying the full-back a try.
From the resulting breakdown Ellis Jenkins was very harshly adjudged to have been offside though, and due to the dangerous attack and field position, referee Raynal had no hesitation in sending the flanker for 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
With 14-men and facing huge pressure on a our own five-metre time it was backs to the wall stuff for Cardiff Blues, but while Edinburgh have based their winning streak on winning from unlikely positions, we have based ours on digging in when the going gets tough. On Saturday, there was only one team that seemed confident of coming out on top.
Anscombe dumped Kinghorn into touch, sparking a scrap over the touchline just to emphasise the frustration of Edinburgh, before their carrier was wrapped up under the posts, and then a solid scrum from Cardiff forced the hosts into a rushed blindside attack and the ball was spilled.
The final 10 minutes of the game ebbed and flowed, as the tension rose. Twice Cardiff Blues cleared their lines, only for Edinburgh to return to our 22. Eventually Jarrod Evans came up with a crucial rip of the ball, and the home side were penalised for going off their feet with less than a minute remaining.
Kirby Myhill nailed the lineout and Lloyd Williams had the pleasure of booting the ball high into the Murrayfield stand. Cardiff Blues are European semi-finalists once again, and it feels so good!
It is a reward for the players, who have given everything for the jersey over the last few weeks, playing some superb rugby but, most importantly, teaming it with a commitment and desire that has been lacking for too long. They deserve all the success they are getting.
It is also a reward for the coaching staff, specifically Danny Wilson and Matt Sherratt, who will now get a proper Cardiff Arms Park send-off from a big crowd at a European semi-final. They got their tactics spot on, and no doubt have big futures in their individual coaching careers.
Last, but by no means least, it is a reward for all the supporters. From those of us in attendance at Murrayfield on Saturday the support was superb, 80 minutes of noise in spite of the cold, the wind and the rain. Even if you couldn’t make it though, I’m sure you’ve been there in plenty of bad times, and the semi-final will be something to treasure.
That semi-final will take place on the weekend of the 20/21/22 April against Section Paloise (Pau), so make sure you clear your diaries and wait for confirmation of the fixture later this week.
First up though are two incredibly important Guinness Pro14 fixtures in South Africa, starting with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this coming Saturday. Game-by-game is how we’ll take this, but increasingly this season, it feels like anything is possible. Come on Cardiff!