Cardiff Blues battled to a narrow win over the Dragons at Rodney Parade on Boxing Day to get the festive derbies up and running with a crucial four points.
After the European Challenge Cup game against Stade Francais Paris the week before had been cancelled, John Mulvihill’s squad was well rested coming into the derby, although the head coach himself was absent after being identified as a close contact to a player who had subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.
In his absence it was a tough start to proceedings in Newport for the away team, back to being the visitors after using Rodney Parade as a temporary home this season, in tough weather that included a strong wind into our faces and periods of driving rain.
Despite an early Kris Dacey turnover win giving us field position, successive botched lineouts giving up possession and territory to the hosts, who promptly went on a run of winning seven straight penalties from Craig Evans. Cardiff Blues infringements included offside, not rolling away and side entry at a maul, but the home side could only secure nine points thanks to the boot of Josh Lewis.
At the mid-point of the first half it seemed as if the away team might get back into the game though, when a driving maul went from the edge of the Dragons 22 and over the try line. Although there was no grounding, it seemed as if a Lloyd Fairbrother side entry had caused the maul to fall early, but the referee and TMO were too focused elsewhere to spot the infringement.
In the end we had to wait until the 33rd minute for Cardiff Blues to get on the board when, having turned three points down to kick to the corner and lose the lineout again, we were able to return to the opposition 22 and the referee did see Fairbrother making a no-arms tackle. Jarrod Evans get us off the mark from the tee.
The score stayed 9-3 to the Dragons as the teams went in at the break but in truth it will have been Cardiff who were the happier of the two sides, conceding just nine points despite being on the wrong side of the penalty count, playing into the wind and knowing the quality that is on the bench.
Straight after half-time that did not exactly play out though, as the hosts went through a number of attacking phases in our half and eventually Garyn Smith was caught offside with Josh Lewis extending the lead off the tee.
However during the last half-an-hour the game started to swing properly in the favour of Cardiff, with scrum dominance leading to opportunities to kick to the corner, and the home side straying offside as we made our mark in the redzone. Jarrod Evans cut the lead to six points off the tee.
Five minutes later, after Dragons had blocked kick chasers twice in two minutes, the away side were back in the redzone. Three successive big carries from Seb Davies, Kris Dacey and Rhys Carre took us right up to the try line, before Josh Turnbull, with help from Dmitri Arhip and Shane Lewis-Hughes, powered over for the crucial try. Evans’ conversion gave us the lead for the first time.
There was a slightly bizarre moment in the final throws of the game, as James Botham got over the line and referee Craig Evans went upstairs to the TMO with the words ‘on-field decision is try’. The TMO promptly told Evans to stick with his on-field decision, but no try was awarded.
Nevertheless, Cardiff Blues saw the game out comfortably for a 12-13 victory which, in the conditions and after a slow start, was a result that John Mulvihill will absolutely have taken from his isolation sofa at home. To get the festive derbies off to a winning start was the ultimate aim, not matter how it came about.
Early ill-discipline and handling errors in open play and at the set piece will no doubt be a concern, but the ability to rectify those during the game was pleasing and the second half dominance will bode well for a showdown with Ospreys next week on the back of an 11th straight league win over the Dragons.