The unassuming Zebre win that played a big part in a successful season

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On Saturday I had a look at the Cardiff Blues v Zebre clash from November 2017, as the first proper Saturday during the suspended rugby season came around due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

In the grand scheme of things it was a fairly innocuous game, on the back of a slow start to the season that had seen us win just two of seven Guinness Pro14 fixtures so far, losing away at Scarlets the week before and in front of just 5,381 supporters at the Arms Park.

A few weeks prior to the game Andy Howell had written a piece for WalesOnline entitled ‘Cardiff Blues should easily be Wales’ top region but even Zebre look a better team right now’. At the time we were playing poorly, but the article didn’t take into account any of the external factors.

Over the summer some potentially serious financial issues had hampered the development of the squad, with the signing and subsequent non-signing of Franco van der Merwe hitting the headlines, but the main issue was the lack of proper pre-season games.

A run-out away at semi-professional English Championship side London Scottish was followed by a game against Exeter Chiefs, but while most of our rivals were playing three games to develop match fitness within the squad, Cardiff Blues only played two and it showed in the early weeks of the season.

However as September turned to October things were starting to settle down at the Arms Park with wins over Dragons, Lyon and Toulouse, only for the loss away to Scarlets to threaten to derail Danny Wilson’s squad again.

With confidence shaky and the season being written off by many despite barely being two months old, the home game against Zebre was shaping up to be a tough one on paper, especially as the Italians had beaten Kings and Ulster before losing by a point to Edinburgh and Cheetahs in the last four games.

Tom James Dragons

Adding to that was the game being the week before the Autumn Internationals. Under the terms of the arrangement between the Welsh regions and Welsh Rugby Union, any players named in the Wales squad were not available the week before the international window got underway.

Kris Dacey, Seb Davies, Josh Navidi and Alex Cuthbert were all unavailable to Cardiff Blues as a result, while injury ruled out Dillon Lewis, Ellis Jenkins, Gareth Anscombe, Jarrod Evans, Rey Lee-Lo and Aled Summerhill. Meanwhile Zebre could call on the likes of Carlo Canna and Matteo Minozzi as part of a full-strength squad.

Despite all that though it was a superb performance from the home side at the Arms Park, making 127 tackles and winning eight turnovers on the floor to restrict the Italians to just eight points after conceding 30 points against Scarlets, 29 against Dragons and 39 against Munster in the last three league games.

Complementing that with 18 clean breaks and five tries, earning the try bonus point after 62 minutes, was an accomplished performance from what was really a second string Cardiff Blues side playing a game that went largely under the radar but was actually an important win.

The 37-8 scoreline sent us on towards beating Connacht next time out and by the time we were on the other side of Christmas we were off the bottom of Conference A and had enough momentum to launch that stunning second half of the season, winning 11 from 13 games including eight in a row.

There was plenty of little moments that contributed to that campaign winding up in success out in Bilbao, and Zebre on a cold Saturday night in November was certainly one of them. And it made Andy Howell look a bit silly. Double winner.

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