For the second season in a row, Cardiff Blues have waited until round four of the Guinness Pro14 to get their first win of the campaign, and have done it against Irish opposition.
After the last-gasp defeats in matches against Leinster, Benetton and Zebre, the pressure was on head coach John Mulvihill, his staff and the players to put a performance in at the Arms Park.
In response to being on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in the history of the league last weekend, Mulvihill brought back the experience of Rhys Gill, Dmitri Arhip, Ellis Jenkins, Nick Williams and Willis Halaholo, but there were two pre-kick off blows as Jarrod Evans and Blaine Scully were forced to withdraw late in the day.
That didn’t stop Cardiff Blues flying out of the blocks though, as Jason Harries won our own kick and Gareth Anscombe stormed into Munster’s 22 in the first phase of the game. 16 phases of much improved ball security later, Owen Lane was over but the TMO called it back as Rey Lee-Lo had blocked a defender earlier in the attack.
Munster looked to get a foot in the game, and it was briefly worrying to see the home defence allow Andrew Conway to make yards before offloading for Rory Scannell, but a forward pass brought that to an end and a scrum penalty gave us attacking position again.
The lineout came from the front and Willis Halaholo, with no obvious gap to make headway, managed to step between Chris Cloete and Mike Sherry. He was brought down within inches of the try line, but Nick Williams was up for the next phase and no defence in the world can stop the big man from that range.
With that score the confidence seemed to be flowing through the Cardiff Blues team as we started attacking from behind our own try line after the restart. Lee-Lo broke out of the 22 before Jason Harries carried over halfway, but the battle of the jackals reared it’s head.
It was always going to be a key part of the game thanks to quality in the form of Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander on the pitch, but when Cloete appeared from a breakdown with the ball there was definite question marks over legality.
Referee Immelman was uninterested though, and Conway burst down the right wing before chipping over the covering Anscombe and scoring the corner.
That sparked Munster into life and Joey Carbery was central to their play as he made a clean break from deep before his kick ahead was recovered by the visitors in the red zone. A few phases of forward carrying later, Scannell slid the ball out the back to his fly-half who floated a pass out for Conway to score a second try in four minutes.
Carbery missed both conversions though, and the frantic start to the game continued as within two minutes of the Irish side taking the lead Cardiff Blues were back in front thanks again to Willis Halaholo.
This time the centre stepped clean through the Munster defensive line from first phase play, and although he could have made the line on his own, he unselfishly passed to the tracking Tomos Williams who dotted down. Anscombe’s second conversion made the score 14-10 at the 20 minute mark.
After that hectic opening quarter of the game, the rest of the first half calmed down as handling errors became prevalent for both sides when looking to create a platform to attack from.
Cardiff Blues still had opportunities to score though, a perfect chip and chase from Anscombe was followed up by a poor final pass from Tomos to Kris Dacey, while Josh Turnbull couldn’t quite find Ellis after Harries had secured a high kick.
There was a moment of worry for the hosts and our captain though, as the TMO had a look at a Jenkins fend on Cloete that slipped into an elbow to the neck, but the accidental nature of the incident required a penalty only as the punishment and a 100th appearance was not ruined.
With the second half underway and the score at 14-13 the game was in the balance, but Cardiff Blues weren’t in any mood to throw away another lead.
Nick Williams got the ball rolling with a penalty win on the floor, and although the lineout went wrong, Josh Navidi pounced on the loose possession to carry forward. The rest was up to Anscombe who drew defenders in before throwing a perfect pass for Halaholo to get a richly deserved try outside Jaco Taute.
The home fly-half added the conversion and a penalty a few minutes later, but the game was arguably won in the next 15 minutes as Munster turned the head up in the Cardiff Blues 22.
Whereas in recent weeks a period of attacking pressure this long would have yielded a try for the opposition and the start of a comeback, this week was different. A first defensive set of eight phases was ended with a knock-on when the turnover was attempted, before a second of 12 phases saw Kris Dacey successfully get over the ball.
With our backs up the next 20 minutes was Cardiff Blues smelling blood as the game was put to bed. Tomos charged a kick down before the scrum showed off some dominance, while Munster infringed in midfield as they became frustrated. On both occasions the boot of Anscombe was on point.
Then, with the score at 30-13 and just over five minutes left on the clock, the confidence started overflowing.
Olly Robinson won a superb penalty on the floor, we opted to kick for the corner and off the lineout got to work. Once the attack got beyond the second phase there was a worry that Cardiff Blues might not create an opening as they had struggled to in phase play previously, but 15 phases later, the outstretched arm of Tomos Williams dotted the ball down.
After three weeks of close shaves, and the disappointment of what, for 70 minutes, was a really disappointing outing against Zebre last weekend, this was an absolutely superb response from everyone associated with Cardiff Blues.
There was direction, incision and power, with some added spite for good measure. There was control and intelligence to the play, a simplicity that had been lacking and most importantly heart and desire from the players.
Huge credit must go to the supporters too, who turned out in good numbers after two Italian defeats, and created a real atmosphere that the players clearly bounced off.
We still have areas to improve, of course. Munster played well but they under-performed by their standards and a better team may have taken advantage of some defensive frailties on show, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Now it’s about starting afresh. Taking the positives and striving to continue improving, knowing that despite only claiming a first win on Friday, we are only six points off Conference A leaders Glasgow. One game at a time, lets beat Cheetahs now. Come on Cardiff!