There was an agonising defeat in John Mulvihill’s first competitive game in charge at the Arms Park as Cardiff Blues threw away a 15-point lead on Friday night.
It was billed as a ‘battle of the European champions’ with visitors Leinster arriving having won the Heineken Cup last season and ourselves having been victorious in the Challenge Cup, of course, although many were disappointed when the visitors named just seven of the 23 that had played in Bilbao.
Cardiff Blues meanwhile managed to name the majority of their matchday squad who played in Spain, as well as giving competitive debuts to Dmitri Arhip, Rory Thornton and Jason Harries, and it was the winger who was thrust into action early on.
Leinster broke through the centre of the field thanks to Asutralian international lock Scott Fardy, and Ross Byrne decided to put a cross field kick in as Cardiff Blues scrambled in defence, but Harries read his intentions well and managed to clear possession with a fine kick.
Although the visitors continued to dominate possession and territory, the breakdown work of the hosts was strong as Nick Williams and Ellis Jenkins won turnovers, the counter attack coming from the latter winning a penalty that Jarrod Evans would kick to open the scoring for 2018/19.
It wasn’t long until we were over for the first try of the season to add to that, as an attacking lineout was secured by Rory Thornton. Off the top the ball was given to Willis Halaholo before the centre slid possession out the back to Evans and the fly-half produced the perfect fend to beat Joe Tomane and send Rey Lee-Lo over.
The fast paced start to the game continued after the try as first Leinster were penalised for a double movement when Fardy crashed into the Cardiff 22, before Owen Lane succumbed to the same infringement as he tried to score in the corner after Seb Davies had made a line break and Evans had found the winger with a cross kick.
As the mid-point of the first half came around Nick Williams’ luck ran out on the floor as he was penalised for not releasing and Ross Byrne made the scoreline 8-3, and Cardiff Blues saw their luck run out in general five minutes later.
A poorly executed defensive lineout wound up with Lloyd Williams trying to play a long flat pass off slow ball and hooker James Tracy was live to the action. He intercepted the pass and manged to get the ball over the line, although there were questions over whether he reached the whitewash in one movement and whether he was in control.
Byrne missed the conversion leaving the score at 8-8 with the half hour mark approaching, but the momentum was with Leinster as Cardiff Blues coughed up possession too often in contact and at the set piece, and when Ellis Jenkins was penalised, Byrne made no mistake in nudging his side ahead.
However, the home side were not done in the first half yet, and began to batter at the Leinster door.
Firstly it seemed like there might be a penalty try coming when Lloyd Williams was taken out early with try line begging, but namesake Nick was penalised for an earlier infringement, before Lee-Lo stepped in touch as he tip-toed down the left wing on his way to the corner.
In the end though, it was a Leinster mistake that opened the door, as Fardy took a quick lineout that nobody else was expecting and the turnover was secured. The ball was spun wide and Matthew Morgan fixed the outside defender to allow Jason Harries to burst into the redzone and step past two covering players to score his first try.
Evans nailed the conversion from out wide, and although Byrne managed to kick another penalty with the last kick of the half, Cardiff Blues still led going into the sheds.
That lead at the break seemed to breathe confidence into the home side to come out and play a bit more in the second half though, and off first phase ball in midfield they put together a superb piece of play.
Owen Lane came off his wing across to the right hand side and fixed two defenders before releasing Morgan on the outside and the full-back worked the two-on-one perfectly for Harries to score his second try of the game and of his Cardiff Blues career.
The conversion came from Evans and two minutes later he was back on the tee after a try he played a major part in.
His huge touch finder from a penalty gave the Blues field position, and from first phase ball Owen Lane crashed possession up to the try line. The ball was recycled and Evans stayed calm to move beyond the blitz defence and put Lee-Lo into acres of space to run in for his second try of the game.
15 points up and a try bonus point in the bag, all was looking good for Cardiff with 30 minutes to go, but a lot can change in a short space of time in rugby.
Matthew Morgan shanked a clearance kick into touch and Leinster pressed, eventually getting the opportunity to organise a driving maul in the red zone and their forwards weren’t to be stopped.
The poor decisions continued as a kick-able penalty was turned down to go for the corner but the lineout drive was poorly executed and a solid away defence kept us comfortably at bay.
Tired legs began to take over in the ranks of the home side, which resulted in experienced heads Ellis Jenkins, Kris Dacey and Nick Williams departing the field, and Cardiff Blues were soon struggling to maintain their composure in attack and giving Nigel Owens the opportunity to award soft penalties in defence.
One of those penalties was punted right into the corner by Ross Byrne, and although the lineout drive was stopped, the home side could not form up into phase defence quickly enough to stop Jamison Gibson-Park scoring a simple try under the posts.
From the kick-off Olly Robinson was able to secure a penalty and Evans made the score 32-26 less than 10 minutes to go, but everytime it seemed Cardiff Blues were in position to keep the ball down in Leinster territory or put pressure on the visitors, a turnover was conceded far too easily.
The effort was valiant from the home side, as 24 phases of attack were defended, but eventually the Blue wall was broken and the Irish side touched the ball against the base of the post through replacement hooker Bryan Byrne.
Ross Byrne’s simple conversion gave them the lead with a minute to go, and although Cardiff Blues made it 40 metres down the field in a last chance attempt to secure the win, another turnover conceded ended that dream.
In the end it was disappointment for John Mulvihill’s men, who may well have taken two match points before the game, but will be ruing throwing three points away after Leinster’s bench put us to the sword, and Cardiff perhaps struggled with the idea of breaking a now 15 game run of defeats against the Irish side.
There were plenty of positives to be taken, and it was a vastly improved performance when you compare it to the loss at the hands of Edinburgh in round one of last season, but ultimately a defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.
Looking at the bigger picture, not many teams will take two points from Leinster this year, but this result will only look good if we are successful in Italy over the next two weeks. It’s only early in the season, but they are big games against Benetton and Zebre.
An early test for the players, but the only way is up and it’s a good base to work from. Come on Cardiff!