Cardiff Blues got the 2020/21 Guinness Pro14 up and running with a battling win away at Zebre, overcoming bad weather, a tricky opposition and a red card early in the second half to take home all four points.
John Mulvihill had largely stuck with the pack that beat Ospreys in the final game of last season back in August, with captain on the day Cory Hill being the only change as Josh Turnbull dropped to number eight and Josh Navidi was ruled out with concussion, while Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo were back available for selection in midfield.
Early on it was clear that this was going to be a different type of game than that win over the Ospreys though, as Zebre were keen to play out from their 22 and move the ball quickly despite the rain and swirling wind on an early October evening in Parma.
Cardiff Blues dealt with the early attacking intent of the home side comfortably, James Botham and Shane Lewis-Hughes both winning turnovers, but some attacking errors saw Josh Adams left isolated at a breakdown and Willis Halaholo look a bit rusty after 11 months out, kicking the ball out on the full.
The first big moment of the game came inside the first 10 minutes of the game when Matthew Morgan passed his first test of the night under the high ball and was taken out in the air by Federico Mori, with the Italy U20 winger sent to the sin bin as a result.
Cardiff Blues quickly set about looking to take advantage of having the extra man, moving downfield and winning a penalty that Jarrod Evans slotted to bring up his 400th point for the club, and gives us a 3-0 lead.
Unfortunately the rest of the sin bin period did not yield any more points, and Zebre’s continuing desire to play fast and wide pushed them into our half with only lineout steals from Cory Hill and Lewis-Hughes preventing them from creating try scoring opportunities as we failed to dominate with ball-in-hand through a number of errors.
Those errors invited pressure on ourselves and eventually led to penalties being conceded, with Carlo Canna missing one opportunity but making no mistake a second time as he levelled the scores at 3-3 with just over 20 minutes of the game gone.
With the game balanced on a knife edge it needed something to break the deadlock, and in the awkward kicking out of hand style that Jarrod Evans possesses, as well as the swirling wing, it found it.
The Cardiff Blues fly-half probably wasn’t looking for a kick-pass or to put a team-mate into space, but the way he can put spin on the ball and impact the flight of it along with the wing caused the Zebre defence to misjudge it completely and who else but Josh Adams was on hand to ponce on the loose possession and score his eighth try in just nine games for the club.
Evans converted for a 3-10 lead and the away side were visibly growing in confidence, with the fly-half pulling the strings and putting Hallam Amos away with a definitely intended chip kick, while the defensive lineout continued to poach the ball from Zebre, however no further points were scored before the break.
The second half started in much the same way as the first, with Zebre playing most of the rugby but Cardiff Blues staying strong in defence, however in the first defensive set after half-time there was an incident that would turn the game on it’s head.
Josh Turnbull and Corey Domachowski went on for a double tackle on Maxime Mbanda, but the away number eight did not quite get low enough as the ball carrier headed into contact and the shoulder made contact with the opposition chin. The TMO took a look and, by the letter of the law, a red card was correctly awarded, even if it is frustrating.
The resulting penalty was kicked by Canna to make the score 6-10, and Cardiff Blues faced a 38 minutes playing with a man down, but in many respects it seemed to galvanise the side.
Firstly, yet another lineout steal, this one from Seb Davies, gave us possession in the Zebre 22. Jarrod Evans put another perfect kick pass in for Hallam Amos, with the winger finding Matthew Morgan on the inside, but the full-back was tackled short and his offload did not go to hand.
The Evans had the chance to add three point off the tee after a scrum penalty, but his kick just drifted wide, before a typically jinking break from the fly-half saw him scorch towards the opposition line but once again the offload did not find a Cardiff Blues hand.
Eventually though Evans did add three points after Josh Adams got on the end of yet another kick left to bounce by Zebre and the home side were penalised on the floor, extending the lead back out to 6-13 with 25 minutes to go.
As the game wore on that energy boost Cardiff Blues enjoyed immediately after the red card seemed to wane, understandably, but the switch to managing the game was made quickly and effectively, driven by Lloyd Williams who kicked superbly from scrum-half.
The defence continued to hold strong during phase play, even causing Zebre more problems with spot blitzers on the outside narrowing their attacking game with a debilitating effect, while the defensive lineout was almost becoming comical in the way we could turn them over so easily.
When Kirby Myhill was tackled off the ball, Jason Tovey was able to add three more points to the Cardiff Blues total with his first touch off the bench, and although he couldn’t make a second shot at goal a few minutes later it didn’t matter because nothing was passing the away side’s defence.
Even with clock basically red, first Matthew Morgan and Hallam Amos denied Zebre a try, before Olly Robinson got himself under the ball to hold his opposite number up over the line. A scrum penalty just confirmed the victory, a 6-16 triumph even preventing the hosts getting a losing bonus point.
It wasn’t perfect, the attack definitely struggled in the first half, but after going down to 14-men early in the second half it was a win that was based on defensive discipline, good game management, hard work and sheer desire. All excellent traits for a squad to have. Long may that continue!