A brave first half showing from Cardiff Blues was blown away by a dominant Saracens in the second half as the English champions stormed to a try bonus point win at Allianz Park.
There were plenty of positives to take forward for John Mulvihill’s men though as we not only kept up with the might of Saracens during the first 40 minutes, but caused them real problems. Unfortunately there might be a bit of a queue outside the medical room this week as players need to be patched up after a brutal game.
With injuries already a problem before kick-off, as the likes of Kris Dacey, Tomos Williams, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo and Aled Summerhill joined plenty of longer term injuries on the sidelines, Mulvihill made a bold selection choice with Jarrod Evans lining up at inside centre outside the returning Gareth Anscombe.
It struck supporters as a ‘nothing to lose’ decision, and the feeling that an interesting afternoon awaited was compounded when Nick Williams withdrew from the bench for personal reasons, and then Saracens waited just three minutes to score the first try of the game.
Cardiff Blues had gone through a 10-phase attack to kick things off but made no metres and then some inaccurate rucking saw the ball roll out the side of a breakdown and the home side pounced.
Three phases later the defensive frailties that were feared in a makeshift midfield came to fruition as Brad Barritt got his hands through a tackle easily and found Alex Lozowski on the outside to make the break before Richard Wigglesworth appeared on a tracking line to be put over under the posts.
Huge credit to Cardiff Blues from a mental point-of-view though, especially when considering how many times in recent weeks we have been a long way behind after 20 minutes and how Glasgow put us to the sword in our last European outing, we played our way back into the game straight away.
An Olly Robinson penalty win on the floor and Saracens pulling down a rolling maul gave us great field position, and then a well-worked red zone attack eventually created an overlap on the right hand side to allow Blaine Scully to score a first try since Bilbao.
The home side tried to hit back but then more credit to Cardiff Blues, this time from a tactical point-of-view, as the defence not only stood strong but pushed the English champions back regularly.
Eventually they forced Saracens to kick and, just before the 20 minutes mark, the visitors went ahead thanks to the counter-attacking brilliance of Matthew Morgan.
First a swift side step saw off the chasing Sean Maitland before Nipper accelerated through the gap left by the winger. It seemed he might be struggling when faced with three covering defenders, but he stepped perfectly between Owen Farrell and Wigglesworth, producing a huge fend on the scrum-half for good measure, and strolled in for a brilliant individual try.
Anscombe converted the second score after hitting the post following the first, leaving Cardiff Blues with a 7-12 lead, although the first injury concern appeared at this point as Lloyd Williams departed for a head injury assessment he would not return from.
Despite that we kept attacking, with Jason Harries making yards straight from the kick-off and finding Kirby Myhill on his shoulder to carry forwards. Some offensive variations saw metres continuing to be made, until referee Romain Poite decided no more advantage could be gained from a high tackle infringement.
Interestingly, Anscombe was asked to kick at goal, which he did successfully to extend the lead to 7-15, but more later on why that may not actually have been the correct decision.
Saracens came back into the game at this point and as Cardiff Blues started to infringe at the breakdown and on the offside line, they pushed into our 22 before a perfect kick-pass found Mike Rhodes on the right wing to appear to have scored, before it was pulled back for a heel in touch.
Play returned to the advantage and Farrell kicked the goal, but the back-and-forth nature of the final 20 minutes in the second half continued when the next Saracens attack was ended by Olly Robinson knocking the ball from Wigglesworth’s hands.
Anscombe hacked on and a good Cardiff Blues kick chase allowed Dillon Lewis to move forward and win a penalty on the floor which once again was put through the uprights by our Wales fly-half.
Saracens once again thought they had a second try shortly afterwards, but this one was chalked off for a forward pass, leaving another Farrell penalty the only score to come in the rest of the half as Cardiff Blues went in with a highly unlikely 13-18 lead at the break.
Unfortunately the second half got rather out of hand, starting with Jason Harries not returning following half-time after taking a blow to the hip during the first half, before Jarrod Evans was substituted into the half with a clearly painful left shoulder.
Just like the first period, the second half started with an early Saracens try as Lewis Jones took too long to organise a box kick exit, the home side counter-rucked and worked the ball well for Ben Earl to crash over in the corner.
This time as Cardiff Blues tried to hit straight back we tried to play from too deep and with the English team having clearly had a rocket up their backsides at half-time, they flew up in the defensive line with Earl bagging a second try through an interception.
A period of sustained Saracens pressured followed, and when Olly Robinson was adjudged to have killed the ball during a dangerous attack, he was promptly sent to the sin ban by Poite. With 14-men defending from a scrum the ball was launched wide by Owen Farrell for Sean Maitland to cross in the corner.
With their backs up the Gallagher Premiership champions were now motoring, and with Cardiff Blues still a man down and looking increasingly disorganised in defence, Alex Goode was able to slice through a big gap in an outside channel before putting Maitland over for a second try in two minutes.
An ever more makeshift backline and with substitutes coming on who could not match the quality of Saracens, replacement scrum-half Ben Spencer and replacement tighthead Christian Judge were able to cross far too easily, putting 50 points on the board and the game to bed.
Olly Robinson snuck over for a late consolation try, but Cardiff Blues left empty handed, albeit with credit for going toe-to-toe with Saracens for 40 minutes at Allianz Park despite struggling with an increasing injury list.
This is where we return to the earlier point of opting to kick penalties in the first half though. The original team selection heavily suggested the game plan was to turn up and score tries, aiming to get four and a bonus point to take home.
However, we went ahead early on and took six points, turning down the opportunities to put the ball in the corner on both occasions. If we had opted to go for the try there, the chances of earning the try bonus point increases and we may have nicked a point. Hindsight is a wonderful thing though!
Concentration now turns to getting a team together for next week’s return game, and although some may feel it best to concentrate on the Pro14 and beating Dragons the week after, we have to go for it in front of a full Arms Park and on free-to-air television against Saracens.
If we can get a few players back, take confidence from the crowd and the first 40 minutes from Sunday’s game, who knows what might happen? Come on Cardiff!