In awful conditions at the Arms Park on Friday night, Cardiff Blues crept past a resilient Dragons side thanks to a last minute Gareth Anscombe penalty kick.
The result just about keeps John Mulvihill’s men in touch with Ospreys in the race for third place, the last play-off place and automatic Heineken Champions Cup qualification, but raises far more questions than answers performance-wise for Wales’ capital region.
Cardiff Blues were able to name a fairly settled side to face our East Wales rivals, with only three changes from that team which played Saracens seeing Dillon Lewis, Olly Robinson and Tomos Williams coming into the starting XV, while Lloyd Williams was named on the bench.
There were definite positives to take from the double header against the Gallagher Premiership champions, however the one constant was an inability to play against 14-men. This reared its head early on when Zane Kirchner was shown a yellow card for an off-the-ball shoulder charge to the chest of Blaine Scully.
10 minutes of having a man advantage was wasted thanks to some telegraphed and unimaginative attacking, and a seriously malfunctioning lineout, as only a Gareth Anscombe penalty was on show when Kirchner returned to the field.
Now back up to their full compliment of players, Dragons threatened to get their noses in front as they dominated possession and territory, but the Cardiff Blues defence held firm. Unfortunately we were not able to capitalise as a swirling wind generally prevailed in the hosts faces from the River Taff End of the ground.
That wind prevented Anscombe doubling the lead off the tee, although the wise option may well have been to kick to touch given the distance to the posts, but as the visitors moved up to the other end of the field, a potentially match changing moment would take place.
Dragons looked to set up an attack inside our 22, but as the ball was slowed down, tighthead prop Lloyd Fairbrother went to clear out Dillon Lewis with a no arms shoulder charge to his opposite number’s head. The referee missed it in real time, but the TMO brought play back and he was rightly shown a straight red card.
With 10 minutes left before half-time Cardiff Blues had a chance to extend their lead before the interval, but it would be the Dragons who dominated the end of the first half thanks in-part to the weather, the wasteful use of possession by the hosts, and the ability of the away team to nullify our threat at the breakdown.
Although not making much ground in attack, Ceri Jones’ men were able to draw level through a Josh Lewis drop goal, before the fly-half nudged his team ahead on the stroke of half-time after winning a driving maul penalty.
The second half saw Cardiff Blues come out with the wind at our backs, and it almost paid off straight away as a strong early attack put pressure on the opposition defence, but in the end there was only a Gareth Anscombe penalty to draw that scores level to show for it.
It took until the 54th minute to finally bag the first try of the game, when some smart attacking finally reared it’s head and with a penalty advantage in the back pocket we engineered an overlap on the blindside with Olly Robinson running free and finding Dan Fish with a smart inside pass.
Now seemed the time to press home the advantage of having an extra man and the wind behind us, but a mistake from Anscombe saw him kick the ball dead from the edge of his own 22, and when Dragons were awarded the penalty from the resulting scrum, Josh Lewis made no mistake in making the scores 13-9.
The away side threatened to push on, winning a suspect penalty to kick to touch inside our half, but Olly Robinson won a turnover on the floor and new interim captain Kris Dacey opted to take a shot at the posts, with Anscombe kicking it with wind assisted ease.
With a seven-point advantage the time should have been right for Cardiff Blues to go in for the kill, but once again it was unimaginative and disjointed attacking that would let us down. A very good rugby team on paper looking like they lack all confidence and understanding in their offensive game.
Dragons would take possession and, remembering they have 14-men, put on a demonstration of how to attack with intensity and creativity, stringing some offloads together and getting quick ball so that Jarryd Sage could come short off Jason Tovey and jog under the posts.
Tovey bagged the conversion so that, with 5:55 left on the clock, Cardiff Blues were drawing 16-16 with 14-man Dragons.
In the end the game was settled in somewhat fortunate circumstances for ourselves. Anscombe kicked well into the opposition 22, and when Dragons couldn’t get distance on their clearance it provided a good attacking platform.
Unfortunately the lineout was a let-down once again, but Cardiff Blues were lucky to be awarded the scrum by referee Frank Murphy and, after three resets, secured the penalty which Gareth Anscombe kicked as the clock turned red for a rather un-deserved victory all in all.
Dragons will feel very hard done by in the sense that they were the better side for large swathes of the game, but ultimately the red card would be their downfall despite a huge effort from the players that remained on the field.
For John Mulvihill and his Cardiff Blues team celebrations were rightly muted as, despite coming away with four points, there were clearly more work-ons than positives to take into two away trips down West, starting with Scarlets on Saturday.
He will be hoping some injuries in the backs department are overcome by the time we travel to Llanelli, with a shake-up of the attack needed desperately, but can at least fall back on the fact that general effort is not an issue within the team currently. All that’s needed is for quality and work-rate to marry up in one performance.