A second Friday night win in a week saw Cardiff Blues jump to fourth in the Guinness Pro14’s Conference A as Cheetahs were dispatched at the Arms Park.
It was a very different performance to that of last week though, as the home side were forced to come from behind to secure four points and may be disappointed to have missed out on a bonus point try as a weird atmosphere surrounded the ground when the final whistle was blown.
John Mulvihill had opted to make three key changes to the side which beat Munster the Friday before, with Dmitri Arhip, Josh Navidi and Nick Williams all missing as Scott Andrews, Rory Thornton and Olly Robinson were drafted in, although the back line remained the same.
Without that power up front it seemed Cardiff Blues might struggle against a typically proficient South African scrummaging unit like Cheetahs and we were duly pushed off the first scrum, but Tian Schoeman missed the resulting kick.
Gareth Anscombe then missed a kick of his own two minutes later after a good defensive read from Willis Halaholo and strong work over the ball by Ellis Jenkins.
A cagey 10 minutes followed before Cheetahs opened the scoring in more than fortunate circumstances, stemming from a harsh looking penalty given against Josh Turnbull for offside after a charge down ricocheted off his leg.
At the resulting lineout in the corner Kris Dacey did brilliantly to wrap up the big second row jumper JP du Preez and rip the ball from his possession, but the loose ball bobbled towards the try line and when Rhys Gill couldn’t gather it up, Walt Steenkamp was on hand to touch it down.
The TMO confirmed one of the luckiest tries you’ll see, and Cheetahs luck continued as Schoeman’s conversion went through off the post. A few minutes later though the roles were reversed.
From first phase attack in opposition territory Owen Lane carried hard and quick ball gave Gareth Anscombe time to put a nicely weighted kick in behind the South Africans. Ryno Eksteen came across from full-back but couldn’t secure possession and Rey Lee-Lo pounced to cross the try line.
Referee George Clancy once again went to the TMO to check, and although it appeared to have been knocked on by the Samoan centre, it was missed by the officials who awarded the try. Cue a sheepish smile from Lee-Lo as Anscombe kicked the conversion to level the scores.
Cardiff Blues were always looking the most likely to score, with Rhys Gill, Gareth Anscombe and Josh Turnbull all getting into excellent attacking positions, but converting chances into tries was becoming problematic for the home side.
In the end just an Anscombe penalty separated the two teams as they headed into the sheds at half-time.
That time in the changing rooms clearly did Cheetahs a world of good as they came flying out of the blocks in the second half, and when Junior Pokomela offloaded for du Preez to storm forward, the attacking ball was perfect for Schoeman whose kick ahead was chased down by Sibhale Maxwane for a try.
The visitors stayed in the ascendancy through the next 10 minutes and when the centres combined it was Bernhard Janse van Rensburg who powered through a gap in the Cardiff Blues defence.
Suddenly, after leading 10-7 at the break, the home side found themselves 10-21 down and in trouble.
There was a reply forthcoming though. From good first phase ball possession went wide early to Owen Lane who was held up just a yard short, but Cardiff Blues stayed patient until the Cheetahs defence parted for the alert replacement scrum-half Lloyd Williams.
Anscombe kicked the conversion and then with 10 minutes left a massive driving maul from the edge of the 22 allowed Olly Robinson to dive over and force the ball to the ground. Another conversion turned the score around to show the home side leading.
From there Cardiff Blues set about trying to secure what, after 15 minutes of the second half, would have been a highly unlikely bonus point win, but could not break down the orange wall of the Cheetahs one last time and had to settle for four points.
As George Clancy blew the final whistle there was a half-hearted cheer from the Arms Park faithful, who may well have expected more after the utter demolition of Munster that had been seen the week before.
However, as the days of this week roll on, I think most will come round to the idea that a win on Friday night was a good result in the long run.
There was big heart on show to overcome an 11-point deficit when not playing particularly well, while securing a win while resting the likes of Nick Williams and Dmitri Arhip, and missing Josh Navidi, Jarrod Evans and Blaine Scully, will bring bonuse in the long run.
John Mulvihill will be aware that there are work-ons this week, no doubt about that. In attack we did not convert what, on paper, was a dominant offensive performance that saw us enjoy the majority of possession and territory whilst making 10 line breaks and beating 20 defenders.
Welcoming back carriers in the shape of Big Nick and Arhip will help in that respect, while we appeared somewhat ill-prepared to deal with the defensive intensity of Cheetahs, not mixing up our attack enough to make them think.
If we can get that right this week, while continuing the improvements that are being made in defence, and bring back some well-rested key players into the squad, then a win against Dragons will make the victory over Cheetahs, and indeed this fixture block as a whole, look more than satisfactory.
Nothing like a pre-Welsh derby week to get the performance levels up to scratch! Come on Cardiff!