Cardiff Blues became European finalists for the third time in our history on Saturday as, in front of a packed out Cardiff Arms Park, French side Section Paloise were defeated in the first semi-final at CAP since 1997.
After a good few years of underachieving, off-field turbulence, and in the last game at our famous old ground for Danny Wilson, Matt Sherratt, Fa’ao Filise and Alex Cuthbert, there was a more than deserved victory to take us to Bilbao, a fine reward for the efforts of the players, staff and, most importantly, the supporters.
Wilson had opted to change up his front row, bringing in an all-international selection of Gethin Jenkins, Kris Dacey and Anton Peikrishvili, while breakout star Owen Lane returned to the wing in place of Blaine Scully.
As if the crowd needed anymore excuse to get going on a fine Saturday afternoon in the Welsh capital, Cardiff Blues legend Filise was presented to the crowd before kick-off waving a giant blue flag in what is likely to be his final season at the Arms Park.
After 12 seasons and 253 appearances he deserves all the plaudits he received, and fine servant for Cardiff Blues for so many years.
Then, with the atmosphere already reaching fever pitch, the match got underway with the tone being set within the opening two minutes as Josh Navidi smashed into Pau tighthead Malik Hamadache, quite possibly one of the biggest players ever to appear at the Arms Park, before going on to hold him up and turn him over with the assistance of Josh Turnbull.
Pau’s game plan was clear early on, attempting to power through Cardiff in possession, before bringing speed to the defensive line, often appearing on the brink of the offside line, but the refereeing team rarely sought to penalise them.
However, that was undone by Cardiff Blues securing turnover ball after five minutes, and shifting possession out wide quickly for Rey Lee-Lo to stretch his legs down the left wing.
With quick ball from that Kris Dacey carried to pull in more defenders, before Jarrod Evans took the ball flat to the line and fired a miss-pass across to Seb Davies on the charge. The lock galloped through a big hole in the Pau scramble defence, before teasing Watisoni Votu with a step off his left foot and unselfishly finding Gareth Anscombe on his shoulder to score the try.
Evans nailed the conversion and Cardiff Blues were in dreamland early on, but there was a long, long way to go yet in this Challenge Cup semi-final.
Pau began to turn up the physical pressure, carrying hard and tackling efficiently so that, even when Cardiff Blues did manage to make a gain of yards, they manage to repel the attack and keep the scoreline close.
The main area where the visitors would try to get on top of us would be the set piece, and especially the scrum, where the aforementioned man mountain Hamadache along with French international loosehead Thomas Domingo turned the screw to run over the top of the home pack.
Fortunately, Cardiff Blues had been clever once again, and after the tactical masterclass of mixing up the attacking game plan in Edinburgh, Danny Wilson devised the idea of conceding the scrum against Pau and instead targeting their lineout and maul as a means of nullifying their attacking threat.
Josh Turnbull was able to steal a lineout, while Nick Williams brilliantly moved through the middle of a driving maul to wrap up the ball carrier and stunt any threat from Pau. Unfortunately though, we would let the French side back into the game all too easily.
After the ferocious start to the game, things started to settle down as the clock ticked towards the 20 minute mark. Cardiff Blues had possession innocuously just outside our own 22, but as Gareth Anscombe dropped back to kick clear he stood too wide in the pocket and with no blockers at the ruck fringe.
Second row Julien Pierre took a gamble and managed to charged down Anscombe’s kick and, although the full-back managed to recover and push the ball away from the French international, the next man in was legendary All Black Conrad Smith, who scooped possession up with ease and scored under the posts.
Fellow All Black Tom Taylor kicked the conversion, and suddenly Pau were right back in the game.
Cardiff Blues hit back well, Owen Lane making a powerful run down the right wing where he skipped past Frank Halai before powering through Conrad Smith, and eventually referee John Lacey penalised Pau on the floor, with Jarrod Evans kicking the penalty.
Pau’s scrum power continued to be a thorn in our side, and although Taylor had missed one kick early on, he successfully made another one as half-time approached, but Jarrod Evans had his own kicking boots firmly on to nudge Cardiff Blues into a 13-10 half-time lead.
The second half seemed to happen both in a blur, and take ages for the minutes to tick by, as the game became a typically tense European semi-final with Pau dominating much of the possession.
Fortunately, Cardiff Blues showed off every reason why this season has been such a success. Passion, desire, commitment, physicality, organisation and the backbone to cling on to a three point lead for the much of the half.
The second rows were magnificent, combining their roles at the set piece with the tackling stats of back rowers, allowing the back rowers to target the Pau breakdown, securing seven turnovers on the floor. Ellis Jenkins and Josh Navidi working in tandem was a sight to behold.
In the backs the combinations worked superbly as well. Jarrod Evans and Gareth Anscombe controlled possession in the 10/15 axis, and particularly Anscombe put in a big defensive performance, intercepting an almost certain try in the first half and putting in a solid showing under the high ball.
Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo also continued their impressive form, suppressing the danger of Tom Taylor, Jale Vatubua and Conrad Smith in midfield, as well as being a constant carrying threat in the face of an intense and committed defensive line.
Off the bench there were notable contributions from Rhys Gill, who noticeably steadied the scrum against a slightly less powerful Pau replacement front row, Olly Robinson, who covered every plastic blade of grass in a 20-minute outing, and Lloyd Williams, who managed the game superbly at the end.
With Pau pushing all the way, it required the coolest of heads on young shoulders to put the game beyond doubt, and Jarrod Evans had just that as he nailed a long range penalty with less than 10 minutes to go.
The away side continued to press, but as the clock ticked into the final seconds, the main man Ellis Jenkins popped up with a superb turnover, and as Evans booted the ball high into the South Stand, the Arms Park erupted in the knowledge that we would once again have the chance to play for silverware.
It perhaps was not the complete performance from the Cardiff Blues, but when push comes to shove, any win is a fantastic win in European knockout rugby.
I leave this match report with just one thought. The atmosphere at the Arms Park was fantastic yesterday. An attendance of over 11,000, with less than 50 Pau fans, and the noise was incredible. Only somewhere like the Arms Park can inspire that, so why would we leave?