After almost five years away from the Heineken Cup, Cardiff Blues marked our return to the top table of European rugby with a superb win away at Lyon on Sunday.
It is now four wins on the bounce for John Mulvihill’s men who join Saracens at the top of pool three and continue a remarkable turn-around from the three losses that started the season in such dramatic circumstances, with late defeats almost becoming common place.
There was some surprise amongst Cardiff Blues supporters pre-game though, when a starting XV showing seven changes from that which had beaten Dragons last week was named with no sign of Nick Williams in the squad while Dmitri Arhip and Rey Lee-Lo were named on the bench.
The idea was clearly to try to counter the power of Lyon by moving them around the park, rather than meeting them head on in a physical battle, although Samu Manoa was named amongst the replacements for the first time.
Unfortunately that plan was undone by Cardiff Blues ourselves as simple errors, such as not claiming the kick-off cleanly and having a clearing box kick charged down, giving the hosts field position early in the game.
Tomos Williams did well to hold the ball up over the line from one attack, but from the resulting scrum number eight Loann Goujon went to carry to the openside before fumbling the ball and switching back to the blindside where Olly Robinson was unable to stop him getting over the line. It looked for all the world like a knock-on, but referee JP Doyle adjudged ball to have gone backwards.
Tomos was involved again in the next scoring play as he was pinged at the breakdown and Lionel Beauxis added a penalty to his conversion, before the Cardiff Blues scrum-half finally got a chance to go forward.
A smart break from Jason Harries allowed Willis Halaholo to run clear before drawing a man and putting Tomos seemingly clear towards the line, only for some good Lyon cover defence to come across and put an end to the first scoring chance of the day.
The visitors would not be deterred though, and after a smart Halaholo kick secured field position, that man Williams was the focal point again as he took the ball off the top of the lineout, broke through the home defence and found Robinson on his left shoulder for the flanker to run the try in.
Anscombe kicked the conversion and within five minutes was back on the tee after some brilliant work from Ellis Jenkins. The flanker managed to pre-empt a Jean-Marc Doussain pass from scrum-half, intercepted possession and headed off downfield. He didn’t quite have the legs, but who was there with him? You guessed it, Tomos Williams crossed in the corner.
Fly-half Anscombe was on the money again, but open play kicking from Cardiff Blues left something to be desired and a long kick went over the dead ball line.
Offered a route back into the game, Lyon dominated possession for the last 10 minutes of the half and Beauxis was on target twice off the tee to see the home side lead 16-14 at the break.
If the first half was all about Tomos Williams though, the second half was Gareth Anscombe’s.
First the full-back kicked two penalties to push Cardiff Blues back into the lead, and then after some dogged defence from the visitors where Dillon Lewis and Olly Robinson asserted their dominance at the breakdown, he produced the moment of the match.
Taking the ball from Owen Lane after a long Lyon kick, Anscombe tracked laterally across the pitch before spotting a gap and hitting the accelerator. He ghosted through the defence before throwing a perfect dummy to slice between the final two defenders and cross for a try of the weekend contender.
He kicked his own conversion and Cardiff Blues continued to attack, with Rey Lee-Lo coming off the bench and teaming up dangerously with Jason Harries, but as the minutes counted down the nerves set in and Lyon tried to get back into the game.
A strong bench contained the likes of Raphael Chaume, Carl Fearns and Dylan Cretin, with the latter breaking the visitors defence and helping Lyon set up camp inside out 22.
Some suspect refereeing decisions and poor play from the hosts help keep them at bay for long enough that the clock seemed to run out of time, but with just under two minutes left some smart hands from Xavier Mignot and Charlie Ngatai freed substitute Pierre-Louis Barassi to score in the corner.
The missed conversion kept Lyon out at a six-point gap, but they would get the ball back as the clock went red. Cue Ellis Jenkins stepping up with a superb turnover inside the opposition 22 and Anscombe had the final say in the game as his penalty denied the French side a losing bonus point.
A 17-point haul for Gareth Anscombe who was a deserved winner of the man-of-the-match award, although if there was an award for ‘coach whose plan came off the best’ then John Mulvihill would be a more than worthy winner after setting his side up for a perfect away European performance against French opposition.
He will be a bit concerned by injuries to Josh Navidi, Macauley Cook and Owen Lane though, with the next pool game coming up next Sunday as Glasgow Warriors arrive at the Arms Park.
The squad can take a huge amount of momentum into that game, with four wins on the bounce, three of which have come from at least 10 points down at one point in the game, underlining the togetherness and commitment that has carried over in the squad from last season to this.
After five years away from the Heineken Cup it was superb to see the team back at the top table of European rugby, and that winning feeling is something that is very difficult to replicate. Now it’s time for us supporters to recognise the players efforts and #PackCAP to get behind them. Come on Cardiff!