In some typically wild Welsh winter weather at the Arms Park on Saturday evening, Cardiff Blues kept Guinness Pro14 play-off hopes alive with a tight win over Connacht.
John Mulvihill was left without his seven Welsh internationals for the game, but was able to call on the returning Kris Dacey to captain the side from hooker, while Shane Lewis-Hughes made his first league start.
Connacht were similarly missing their Irish internationals and struggled to get a foothold in the game early on as Cardiff Blues dominated both possession and territory.
The home side tried to get our dangerous players into the right areas, with Matthew Morgan and Owen Lane both putting threatening kicks in behind, but a penalty conceded for holding on and another as we strayed offside at a defensive lineout prevented us from pressing home any advantage.
Eventually Connacht infringed on the floor though, so after 10 minutes of attacking Steve Shingler was able to open the scoring from the tee, however the visitors would look to strike back quickly.
A number of Cardiff Blues infringements, starting with Nick Williams in midfield before three successive maul defence penalties, ended with Brad Thyer being sin binned and the visitors setting up for a scrum just five metres from the line.
However, two big defensive sets ended up with Nick winning a turnover on the floor at halfway, with Shingler just pulling the long kick at goal to the left of the uprights.
As the mid-point of the first half approached Cardiff Blues actually found ourselves down to 13 men for a few minutes, as Nick Williams was sin binned for a ‘marginally’ late tackle, but that was no problem for the home side.
An scrum just outside the Connacht 22 held strong, and Lloyd Williams sniped down the blindside, perfectly holding the left winger before slipping the ball out to Owen Lane. The winger still had a lot of work to do but stayed in-field brilliantly before diving full length for the corner as David Horwitz came across, touching down for a sensational finish.
Shingler missed the tough conversion from out wide, and the 8-0 lead lasted until half-time as a back and forth final 10 minutes saw Cardiff Blues return to full strength and defend well to keep the visitors scoreless.
Early in the second half we had a great chance to extend the lead, as Dan Fish put Harri Millard through a gap in the defence before finding Lloyd Williams on a good tracking line, but the scrum-half was brought down short and a few phases later Connacht were able to win a turnover.
From there it was the visitors attempting to get back into the game for the next 20 minutes, an effective kicking tactic giving them good field position, and a still inconsistent Cardiff Blues lineout inviting pressure on ourselves.
Fortunately we stood up to that pressure with a superb defensive performance, led from the centres by Rey Lee-Lo and Millard, and up front by Nick Williams who was a pest around the breakdown.
The scrum was also dominant and gave Cardiff Blues respite as the game ticked into it’s second quarter, however no points were forthcoming and when the visitors kicked through dangerously, Owen Lane made the decision to dive back over his own try line to concede a five metre attacking scrum.
Connacht set about a siege of the try line, carrying hard before eventually replacement back rower Paul Boyle was able to get over, with Mike Adamson in a good position to award the score. Conor Fitzgerald converted to make the score 8-7.
With five minutes left on the clock it was tense inside the Arms Park, especially when a loose box kick clearance from Lloyd Williams allowed Tiernan O’Halloran to go for a drop goal, but fortunately it went well wide.
One last Connacht attack went through six phases, but the Cardiff Blues defence showed no sign of letting up and a knock on spelled the end of the game.
A massively important four points for John Mulvihill’s men who are now just two points behind Connacht and Ospreys with both teams still to play, and can take confidence from that defensive showing despite some questionable game management late on and a continually faltering lineout.
The players now enjoy a well earned few weeks off with many heading for some winter sun as the Six Nations gets underway, before Glasgow come to the Arms Park on the 16th February.