Cardiff Blues returned to winning ways against Benetton as Monday night rugby drew to a close in the Guinness Pro14 with a victory at Rodney Parade.
After going down in disappointing fashion to Edinburgh in the previous game, John Mulvihill had rung the changes with Jarrod Evans and Willis Halaholo returning from injury, while Corey Domachowski, Scott Andrews, Ben Murphy, Jamie Hill and Matthew Morgan were called upon. There was also a late alteration as James Botham was called up by Wales with James Ratti starting on the blindside.
On a dreadful night weather-wise in Newport it was Benetton who started the stronger, winning a scrum penalty and opting for the posts, but Ian Keatley’s goal kick was taken wide by the swirling wind blowing around Rodney Parade.
A mix of smart kicking and some poor exiting from Cardiff Blues allowed the away side to continue to dominate possession and territory during the opening quarter, but some excellent maul defence from the likes of Rory Thornton and Ben Murphy, and then a brilliant turnover after Jarrod Evans chopped down Toa Halafihi close to the line and Josh Turnbull got over the ball, averted the danger.
Eventually the hosts did manage to get hold of the ball and go through some phases in the Benetton half, tempting the Italian sides offside. Jarrod Evans’ penalty smashed the post but a knock on gave us a scrum and a second penalty won there allowed Evans to put us ahead after 23 minutes.
It was the pack at the centre of the next 10 minutes as good maul defence won possession back and then another scrum penalty win allowed Evans to kick us to the corner. A driving maul looked like it was going to be stopped early, but it spun away from the away defence and Rory Thornton was in possession to score a Cardiff try.
Evans missed the tough conversion from the touchline but the home side still took a 8-0 lead in at the break, preparing to play with the wind largely at their backs in the second half.
Unfortunately chances of capitalising on momentum and the weather early after half-time took a blow when Olly Robinson left the field with his arm in a makeshift sling, while the lineout briefly deserted Cardiff as Benetton started challenging well at the front.
There was also struggles in attack as the Italian side’s discipline returned in defence and the hosts were battered back and eventually turned over twice when a kick for territory might have been the better option.
The game needed something special to break the deadlock and it got it on 64 minutes when Owen Lane appeared off his wing in midfield and broke through the Benetton defensive line before stepping brilliantly past the last defender to score a wonder try which Evans converted.
With 10 minutes to go the away side threatened to come back into the game as they got their driving maul working at last with replacement hooker Tomas Baravelle in possession as they crashed over the line, but Keatley missed the conversion and the chance to really put the pressure on.
Instead Cardiff Blues were able to control the remainder of proceedings as Ben Thomas kicked smartly for touch in the Benetton territory, and a turnover allowed us to go through the phases in the opposition 22. After the forwards had drawn the defence in the ball was spun wide to the right and Thomas was on hand to go over under the posts, with Evans converting.
There was a chance to go for a bonus point with the clock red and a smart half-break from Thomas, but although the ball was knocked on to call the game to an end, it didn’t take any shine off what was a hugely important and deserved victory for John Mulvihill’s men.
That has put us back into second place in the Pro14’s Conference B ahead of what will be an incredibly tough trip away to reigning champions and undefeated Leinster next Sunday. The momentum generated by this win though will go a long way to helping us put in a positive performance at the Royal Dublin Showground.