Cardiff Blues suffered a first ‘home’ loss since New Year’s Eve on Saturday, as a much-changed side fell to a strong Ospreys outfit thanks to a late Dan Biggar drop goal at Judgement Day.
Of course, with the game being staged next door at the Principality Stadium it wasn’t really a home fixture for Danny Wilson’s men, and after making 13 changes to the starting XV following a physical encounter with Pau last week, there was much to be pleased about at the final whistle.
Only Josh Turnbull and Gareth Anscombe survived from the starting line-up that won us a spot in a third European final last week, with Wilson admitting pre-game that he only had 18 or 19 senior players turn up to training on Tuesday last week.
However, despite the raft of changes and having to name a number of young players on the bench, two of whom were in line for Pro14 debuts, it was a performance to be proud of, and one that maintains momentum before heading to Bilbao.
There was an early worry for Cardiff Blues, as Hanno Dirksen broke a tackle and ran clear straight from kick-off, but a Garyn Smith cover tackle saved an opening minute try. In the end, players not rolling away gave away a penalty in front of the posts for Dan Biggar to open the scoring.
Another early worry came as Rhys Gill departed inside ten minutes after an unfortunate clash with the shoulder of Josh Turnbull. A suspected broken jaw was operated on that night, but the loosehead prop now faces a race against time to be fit for the Challenge Cup Final.
Gareth Anscombe got Cardiff Blues on the scoreboard after 13 minutes, when Ospreys used their hands on the floor to deny Brad Thyer a turnover, however it would be the ‘visitors’ who scored the first try of the game shortly after.
Jeff Hassler broke clear from first phase ball in midfield, before Sam Cross made ground on the second phase. With Cardiff Blues struggling to re-organise, the attack eventually ended up with Alun Wyn Jones picking up the ball from the base of a breakdown, and faced with Lloyd Williams and Matthew Morgan at fringe defence, he had no problems diving over the line.
Biggar converted for a 3-10 lead, but from almost out of nowhere, Cardiff drew the scores level thanks to the magic man, Gareth Anscombe. Starting the passage of play from first phase ball on halfway, he chipped over the top for Morgan to collect, with the full-back putting Ospreys under further pressure with a kick into the redzone.
They were able to recover possession, but Dan Evans’ clearance only just found touch, and Blaine Scully took the lineout quickly to Anscombe. Looking up and seeing two forwards in the Ospreys kick chase, he sliced between them before turning on the afterburners to score a wonderful solo try and converting it himself.
With that score under his belt, Anscombe visibly grew in confidence, and it was his chip into touch on the Ospreys 22 line that allowed Josh Turnbull to show off his maul defence skills and secure a turnover for Cardiff Blues in an attacking position.
From the scrum it was Steve Shingler who stepped in at first receiver producing a perfectly weighted poke through for Garyn Smith to collect and score under the posts, with the defence tricked into expecting the screen pass to Anscombe.
The fly-half happily converted, and it was 17-10 to Cardiff with half-an-hour on the clock, before he traded penalties with Biggar as the first half came to a close.
Blues almost extended the lead on the stroke of half-time, when an Anscombe penalty at the top end of his kicking range cannoned off the cross bar, before Macauley Cook could not quite gather the rebound after a valiant chase.
However, Cardiff Blues will no doubt have been the happier of the two sides as they headed for the sheds.
The start of the second half was a tight affair, but rugby took second stage for the biggest moment of the opening 10 minutes, when Fa’ao Filise left the field for what is very possibly his last game on Welsh soil. No official announcement yet, but if it is to be the case, you can expect much more coverage if the news is confirmed. What a servant.
Shortly after it went off it seemed Ospreys may have scored the first try of the second half after Bradley Davies had driven over following a Dan Evans half-break, but TMO Neil Hennesey ruled that Damian Welch had done enough to hold his opposite number up.
Ospreys kept up the pressure though, and after a whopping 16 phases of attack, they finally broke through as Dan Biggar spotted a gap between Brad Thyer and Gareth Anscombe, broke a tackle and threw a dummy to score under the posts and convert his own try.
At this point it seemed like Ospreys may run away with the game, courtesy of the momentum they were building and the relative strength of their replacements in comparison to the youth of ours.
However, once again I find myself writing this next sentence this season, this is not the Cardiff Blues team of previous years. The soft underbelly is no more, and we are not in games just to make up the numbers.
A massive defensive set followed the Biggar try, with turnovers from Josh Turnbull and Olly Robinson at crucial times, before Matthew Morgan’s dangerous running started to give us a foothold in the game.
With front foot ball Garyn Smith produced a lovely kick before the corner, which Blaine Scully chased well and forced Sam Davies to play and subsequently be bundled into touch. Ospreys interfered at the lineout, and Anscombe successfully kicked us back into the lead with less than 15 minutes to go.
As the game entered the final ten minutes things started to get nervy, and two crucial refereeing decisions went against Olly Robinson in the narrowest of circumstances, the second of which resulted in Biggar kicking the sides level.
Shortly after the restart a third crucial decision went against Cardiff Blues, when referee Frank Murphy adjudged that the ball was out of a breakdown after Matthew Morgan had made another superb outside break. Contentious to say the least, and it gave Ospreys the chance to head back into our half.
Another multi-phase Ospreys attack went nowhere as Cardiff defended valiantly again, but fly-half Biggar had quietly dropped into the pocket, and kicked what turned out to be the match winning drop goal with three minutes remaining.
Cardiff Blues were not able to mount a response in the short time remaining, and with some very heavy legs around the field after a huge defensive effort second half, but you will not find one Cardiff Blues supporter who left the Principality Stadium disappointed on Saturday evening.
On paper, there is no doubt that Ospreys were the stronger side, but Cardiff Blues showed off superb strength in depth, and the quality that we have in the next generation of players, as we fought for 80 minutes and lead going into the final 10 minutes of the game.
My greatest fear going into the game was that we would take a heavy defeat and it would suck the momentum out of the camp going into the Challenge Cup Final in two weeks, but I needn’t have worried about Danny Wilson’s judgement, and he was spot on to trust his squad to deliver on the day.
We know have a rest week before the players go into a pre-Bilbao training week on the back of a performance packed with positives. All in all, a day to be proud of. Come on Cardiff!