Cardiff Blues ended 2018 with a bang as we won away at the Scarlets for the first time in two and a half years, and did it in try bonus point style at that.
It inflicted the first home Guinness Pro14 defeat on the hosts at Parc y Scarlets for nearly two years, and while the West Wales side were a shadow of that which reached last season’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals, take nothing away from the job that John Mulvihill’s men did on them.
What a difference a week makes as Cardiff Blues had struggled past 14-man Dragons just eight days previously, with three changes to the team that started that night as Brad Thyer, George Earle and Lloyd Williams all came into the XV while Dmitri Arhip returned from injury to take a place on the bench.
A cagey start to the game came to an end in the eighth minute as Gareth Anscombe nailed a brilliant penalty kick from out wide on the 10 metre line as Scarlets infringed twice while defending the driving maul.
That briefly opened the scoring floodgates as Cardiff Blues got the first try of the game in lightning fashion from turnover ball.
Rey Lee-Lo cut through the Scarlets defence before finding Lloyd Williams tracking on his inside shoulder. The scrum-half moved it back outside to Blaine Scully who was brought down short but produced a superb offload back to Lloyd who snuck over in the corner, the TMO just about confirming the American winger’s leg was in the air when he released the ball.
Anscombe converted, however pretty much from the kick-off Scarlets hit back as a clearing box kick was contested in the air and adjudged to have come back off a Cardiff Blues hand. This meant everyone was onside and Will Boyde pounced before matching Scully with a sublime offload for Johnny McNicholl to race over the line.
The conversion was missed but in the space of just five minutes the score had gone from 0-0 to 5-10. While it appeared the game was on though, the score wouldn’t change for the rest of the half.
Cardiff Blues had chances to extend the lead, but an attacking scrum and lineout in the opposition 22 came to nothing as especially the throw creaked again, arguably the worst it has been all season.
Instead it was the Scarlets who dominated both possession and territory, going through attacking sets of 25 and 16 phases inside our 22.
However, they were met by a resilient Cardiff Blues defence who, through organisation and physicality, managed to repel all the home attacks as the confidence visibly drained from the hosts in the realisation that they would struggle to break down the blue wall.
It was much the same story for the first 20 minutes of the second half, as Scarlets battered at the door but Cardiff Blues would not relent, a Garyn Smith last ditch tackle the highlight of one particularly lengthy defensive set.
With life continuing to drain from the home side, we started gaining the upper hand on the floor. Helped by the timely introduction of Olly Robinson to the action, Scarlets were deprived of any quick ball and we slowly worked our way up field.
This was helped by a well organised kicking game run by Gareth Anscombe, which saw Cardiff Blues kick to the corner when there was space, and kick centrally when ‘kick tennis’ ensued, keeping the kick chase narrow and well organised to prevent the hosts utilising their strength in the back three.
Eventually, as the game ticked into it’s final quarter, an attacking chance presented itself to the visitors and we took it with aplomb.
From first phase ball on halfway Willis Halaholo was able to step comfortably past Dan Jones before finding centre partner Rey Lee-Lo on his shoulders who turned on the afterburners to leave Jon Davies for dead and cross the whitewash.
Anscombe nailed yet another good kick to add the two points and this 12 point advantage seemed to release a few shackles from the Cardiff Blues backline, although we were let down again by the lineout which is the one big work-on that the coaches come away from Parc y Scarlets with.
Eventually our pressure yielded a penalty, which Anscombe gladly kicked to make it a 15-point lead, and this in turn led to the final 10 minutes being dominated by Cardiff Blues even without the ball.
Scarlets were increasingly desperate to get back into the game, and when a turnover pushed them back into their own half, Hadleigh Parkes went for the spectacular long pass out wide which Rey Lee-Lo was all too happy to intercept and run under the posts for his second try of the game.
From the restart we kicked clear and Scarlets had a lineout on halfway, it came off the top and as Dan Jones made a pass at first receiver, it was like Anscombe had read his mind, hardly breaking stride as he scored a second interception try in two minutes.
With the bonus point win wrapped up the last few minutes were seen off and Cardiff Blues secured a vital five points, finishing the weekend just a point behind Ospreys and four behind Connacht ahead of a trip to the Liberty Stadium next week.
A win born partially out of the game plan pieced together by John Mulvihill and his coaching staff, the kicking game run by Gareth Anscombe, the taking of chances in attack, but most importantly a defensive performance that encapsulated the phrase ‘pride in the jersey’.
What a way to end 2018, Happy New Year!