Cardiff Blues’ chances of making the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals are hanging by a thread after a disappointing defeat at Leicester Tigers on Sunday.
John Mulvihill’s men will now need to secure a big bonus point win over Calvisano next week before relying on results elsewhere in order to make the knockout stages of the second tier competition, with this being a third loss in the pool stages so far.
There was an early blow to preparations for the Welsh side when Hallam Amos withdrew from the squad before kick-off with an ankle injury, resulting in a reshuffle that saw Ben Thomas start at inside centre, Rey Lee-Lo switch to outside centre and Josh Adams move on to the wing.
That did not seem to hinder Cardiff Blues early in the game though, as a Filo Paulo kick charge down set up an attack on the opposition try line, although after a number of phases there was no way through the home defence.
Instead it needed a first phase strike play to break Leicester down which we got a few minutes later as Ben Thomas and Jason Tovey worked to release Jason Harries storming across from the blindside wing, he broke and found Matthew Morgan in support to link the play to Josh Adams for a brilliant opening score.
Tovey converted brilliantly but the scores were level soon after when a home lineout saw the ball bobble around only to be collected by George Ford who broke with Harry Wells and then Sam Lewis in support to score, with Ford adding the extras.
The game settled into its stride following that exchange of tries, with Cardiff Blues dominating possession and territory but struggling to work a breakthrough with a wounded lineout, although a strong scrum was a big positive.
In the end it took until a few minutes before the break for the away side to strike again when another lengthy attacking set in the opposition 22 eventually got over the line thanks to a stunning piece of offloading skill from Rey Lee-Lo with his centre partner Thomas on the receiving end.
Tovey converted although Ford notched a penalty on the stroke of half-time to make the score 10-14 as the two sides headed for the sheds.
Perhaps the biggest concern of the game for John Mulvihill, and something to add to Tom Smith’s growing list of skills to deal with, was the poor way in which particularly the forwards handled the restarts.
The second half got underway with Cardiff Blues allowing the ball to bounce in our own 22 and then conceding a penalty, which Ford kicked to the corner. The initial attack was stopped but the ball spread to left winger Jordan Olowofela who dotted down out wide with Ford converting.
Poor restarts were a problem for both teams though, it would transpire, as Leicester Tigers also failed to gather possession at the next restart and soon the away side thought they may have scored with Matthew Morgan doing brilliantly to slide in.
However, referee George Clancy remarkably signalled for the TMO when there wasn’t one and used replays from one camera behind the in-goal area to determine that actually he wasn’t in control going over the try line.
Unfortunately Morgan was injured in the process of attempting to score and that would start a second half of injuries that saw Harri Millard depart with a serious looking shoulder injury and Josh Adams end the game looking very uncomfortable with a leg problem.
Tovey continued to keep us in the game as a penalty drew the scores level, but Leicester struck again quickly, with Olowolefa breaking through thanks to a possible forward pass and finding Ben White on his shoulder to score.
Ford converted and dropped a goal to nudge the hosts even further ahead as Cardiff Blues got pinned back in our own half, struggling to move down field or even properly clear our lines as a lack of physicality in attack and defence left us without much possession or any territory.
A solitary further visit to the Leicester 22 resulted in a penalty which we chose to kick at goal, making the score 27-20, but a further Ford drop goal took us out of bonus point range once again and we were powerless to do anything about it.
We had always left ourselves a lot of work to do after the home defeat to the English side in Leicester in particular, as well as the away loss to Pau, but to see the campaign almost slide off with a whimper in the second half was somewhat disappointing.
It is the end of a long fixture block and a number of injuries no doubt had an impact, but still to miss the amount of tackles we did and continue to struggle at the lineout, as well as look out of ideas in attack, was tough to watch at Welford Road.
Now all attention turns to next weekend and putting a lot of points on Calvisano before becoming Leicester and London Irish supporters for a short while!