The Cardiff Blues involvement in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup is over despite a second spirited performance against Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens in a week.
Once again we were leading as the sides went in at half-time, and even as the clock ticked past the 75th minute there was only five points in it. In the end though the savvy-ness of Sarries saw them over the line, assisted by some slightly favourable refereeing at times.
John Mulvihill had made nine changes to the team that lost heavily at Allianz Park last week, with Kristian Dacey, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams, Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo all recalled after being unavailable, while Lewis Jones and Garyn Smith were an injury replacements, and Scott Andrews and Dan Fish tactical selections.
Despite all the changes though there was a familiar story to the start of this return fixture as, after missing an early kick at goal, Saracens got the first try of the game when Sean Maitland was able to stand up Dan Fish and speed down the left touchline to score in the corner.
Owen Farrell kicked the conversion and as the visitors continued to dominate possession and territory he was allowed to extend the lead to 10-0. However, this seemed to spark Cardiff Blues into life.
A penalty secured in the Saracens 22, and although there was some surprise in the stands as captain Josh Turnbull opted to scrum, it worked out to perfection as Rey Lee-Lo slid through a gap outside Brad Barritt and scored in his sixth try of the season in all competitions.
Farrell was able to nudge Saracens slightly further ahead from the tee, but it was the defences who were winning out on both sides as Cardiff Blues get the English side at bay, while the hosts were getting no change at all out of the red wall put up by the opposition.
That was until a moment of magic saw Gareth Anscombe chip wide off his left foot to be collected by Garyn Smith before offloading inside to give Dan Fish a run in on his first European start since October 2016.
Anscombe converted and Cardiff Blues held on to once again lead against Saracens at half-time, this time by the narrow margin of 14-13, but it still meant that for two out of four halves against the Gallagher Premiership champions, we finished ahead.
The first 10 minutes of the second half is where the real change between the two games starts, as instead of Saracens running away with the scoreboard this week, a real battle ensues to gain the upper hand.
Some dreadful weather the previous night leaves the pitch wet, making handling an issue as both sides opt for one-up carries rather than trying to play wide. Cardiff Blues struggle in this department, but match their opponents in the all-important kicking game.
Saracens have done their homework on us as a home team though and staff the attacking breakdown well, preventing the likes of Nick Williams and Josh Navidi effecting turnovers, and in the end we are penalised on the floor in desperate attempts to slow the English side down as Farrell nudges them back in front.
At this point the game is in the balance, but Cardiff Blues are presented an opportunity s two successive maul drives are dragged down, referee Jerome Garces sends Will Skelton to the sin bin and all of a sudden the home team have a man advantage.
It could have been a two-man advantage as Sean Maitland was lucky to avoid a yellow card after tackling Garyn Smith in the air, but unfortunately the Welsh side could not capitalise with the extra player.
Inaccuracies and poor management at the set piece saw Saracens turnover one maul drive, while another ended up with the ball on the ground, allowing the visitors to offer a masterclass in slowing the game down and dealing with only having 14 players on the pitch.
Not only did they prevent Cardiff Blues from scoring, but they actually extended their lead through another Owen Farrell penalty, and then when back up to 15 men they benefited from another contentious Garces decision.
A maul drive pushed them towards the line, and as the home counter-drive parted, Jamie George was the man barreling forwards with the ball. He crashed over for what appeared to be a try, but replays showed Olly Robinson appeared to be right underneath him as he went to ground.
Nevertheless, the referee and TMO decided they had seen enough to award the score and Cardiff Blues could not mount a reply, eventually ending up empty-handed as the final score showed 14-26 to Saracens.
Overall the general feeling after the game was one of pride though, as we went toe-to-toe with the Gallagher Premiership for 80 minutes, and indeed 120 of the 160 minutes across the double header.
We may now be out of the Heineken Cup, but hopefully the experience of battling it out with Saracens in front of a full and loud Arms Park will give Cardiff Blues motivation and confidence to push on in the second half of the Guinness Pro14 season.
That starts next week at home to Dragons as the festive derbies return for another year, so lets pack CAP once again and push the boys to victory against our rivals to the East. Come on Cardiff!