It was a valuable bonus point picked up by Cardiff Blues at Ulster on Saturday afternoon, but the visitors will be left ruing circumstances out of their control as a big defensive performance was cause for positivity.
After last weekend’s heavy defeat away at Glasgow a performance was required from John Mulvihill’s men to get this tough fixture block back on track, and they duly delivered in terms of effort and defensive commitment. It was a world away from the first half in Scotstoun where the Scottish side secured a try bonus point inside 40 minutes.
Six changes were made to that starting XV which fell last weekend, as Rhys Gill and Scott Andrews were drafted in up front, Samu Manoa made a first start at blindside flanker, Rey Lee-Lo and Harri Millard teamed up at centre, and Matthew Morgan returned to full-back. Dillon Lewis and Tomos Williams were named among the replacements.
There was a late change though, as Aled Summerhill withdrew from the wing and Blaine Scully made his first Cardiff Blues appearance of the season.
Within a minute Ulster had their first chance to get on the scoreboard, as Olly Robinson was penalised at the breakdown, and last year’s Pro14 top scorer John Cooney kicked the home side ahead.
Cardiff Blues, with the knowledge that they have been at least 10 points behind at the 20 minute mark in seven of their last eight games, responded well though and a lengthy attack took us into the opposition 22, with Jason Harries particularly breaking well down the left wing.
That attack broke down but the visitors came back as a Rey Lee-Lo offload allowed Harri Millard to put a dangerous kick in behind before joining forces with Blaine Scully to take Cooney into touch.
From the lineout Cardiff Blues starting to siege the try line, with Nick Williams, Samu Manoa and Scully going close before eventually the close carries allowed an overlap to form and Jarrod Evans found Matthew Morgan to slide over in the corner.
The conversion was missed and a few minutes later Ulster took the lead back in very fortunate circumstances. Firstly they were awarded a penalty on about halfway with no clear infringement at the breakdown, before Stu McCloskey took a quick tap penalty.
He broke forwards and although Nick Williams made a good cover tackle, the centre was able to free his hands and offload with the ball bouncing off the shins of Kieran Treadwell perfectly towards the line for the big second row to flop on for a try.
This conversion was kicked but Cardiff Blues were in a fighting mood and an Ulster infringement at the lineout returned us to their 22.
A first lineout drive was rebuffed, but a second, this time with added backs power, eventually edged close enough to the line for Kris Dacey to force his way over for a fourth try this season, with Jarrod Evans adding the extras this time.
After a back and forth opening twenty the second half of the first period settled down somewhat as both teams battled for dominance.
Jason Harries’ kick through was again chased well by Blaine Scully who forced Michael Lowry into conceding an attacking lineout, but this time Cardiff Blues couldn’t make it count.
Then it was on to defence, and after last week’s hugely disappointing performance without the ball, this week was a very different story.
Two excellent defensive sets not only kept Ulster at bay as they attacked our half, but pushed them back towards halfway before forcing a turnover as the line speed, intensity and organisation returned to our game after being totally lacking just a week previously.
That saw the sides go in with Cardiff Blues leading 10-12 at the break, but unfortunately the second half would not be dominated by the actions of the teams, but by the decisions of South African referee Stuart Berry and his officiating team.
After a tense opening 10 minutes following the interval, the tide of the game was turned when Seb Davies was sin binned after being adjudged to have illegally cleared out an Ulster player at the breakdown.
Did Seb need to do it? No. Was it a yellow card? Absolutely not. It’s debatable whether it was a penalty at all, but Berry bowed to the pressure of the Irish touch judge and the Irish crowd.
With the man advantage Ulster attacked into the Cardiff Blues 22 and when Dillon Lewis was penalised on the floor, John Cooney took the chance to nudge his side a point ahead.
Then controversy at the other end of the field as Matthew Morgan broke the home defensive line brilliantly before finding Tomos Williams on his shoulder.
The scrum-half broke forward but as he went to make the final pass to Jason Harries to ball escaped forwards. Berry blew up immediately and awarded Ulster the scrum, however replays clearly showed that Stu McCloskey had in fact slapped the ball down so no offence was committed and play should have continued.
To make matters worse, McCloskey had gone on to pull Harries back as he went for the loose ball and to score, something that should have been punished with the awarding of a penalty try and possibly a yellow card.
Instead, Ulster went up the other hand and won another penalty for Cooney to put the home side four points ahead heading into the final 10 minutes.
There was still time for more baffling officiating from Berry and co as Cardiff Blues laid seige to the try line before Rory Best was adjudged to have completed a turnover despite entering the breakdown from the side, being off his feet and not actually being on the ball. Apart from that it was fine.
In the end we’ll never know if a 16-12 scoreline was truly a fair reflection of the game, which in truth wasn’t a quality filled encounter, but from a Cardiff Blues point of view produced a losing bonus point that many would have taken in the aftermath of the Glasgow defeat.
Playing-wise, the defence was an obvious positive, but as we build back up to being regularly competitive the attack will need some incision added to it as it was fairly blunt throughout Saturday afternoon’s encounter.
A big part of that will be securing possession and how we use forwards at the breakdown and in carrying pods, which at the moment is haphazard at best, and completely disorganised at worst.
Next week is Saracens though, and up against one of the best teams in Europe, just being competitive and having a go will be the order of the day. Come on Cardiff!