Cardiff signed off the ‘Blues’ name with a bonus point win over Zebre at the Arms Park, although it was a frustrating evening to round off the Rainbow Cup as captain’s challenges and TMO referrals led to a tough-to-watch second half.
Dai Young had largely stuck with the side that had played the previous three games despite it being a dead rubber, with Gwilym Bradley and Matthew Morgan in as injury replacements for James Ratti and Hallam Amos, while Liam Belcher and Dan Fish replaced the rested Kris Dacey and Josh Adams, and Lloyd Williams and Tomos Williams switched at scrum-half.
A cagey opening 10 minutes saw both side’s defences on top, with the speed of the blitz suffocating any attack, but some strong set piece defence from the host allowed Jarrod Evans to open the scoring from the tee.
On the back of that Cardiff seemed to spark into life, and when a breakdown penalty was followed by forcing the Italians to concede a penalty at the maul we went to the corner and set to work. Cory Hill got the drive organised, before Seb Davies and James Botham guided Gwilym Bradley to the line for his first senior try.
Zebre had a man sent off in the build up to that try and the hosts were in the right mood to take advantage of that as Bradley went from try scorer to scavenger, securing a turnover in the opposition 22, before a beautiful miss-pass from Willis Halaholo allowed Jason Harries to carry up to the try line. The forwards took control and Botham was the man who pushed over, with Evans converting for a 15-0 lead.
There was nearly a third try in quick succession when Evans turned scrappy first phase ball into a Dan Fish line break after beating three man and throwing a miss-pass back on the blindside, but the winger’s kick ahead couldn’t quite be gathered by Lloyd Williams.
In the end the wait for the third try took 10 minutes as Zebre infringed at the scrum and then the lineout to give the hosts field position in the opposition 22. Off the top of the set piece the backs swung into action with Ben Thomas and Jarrod Evans combining to put Matthew Morgan into space, before he found Fish maintaining his width on the left to spin over for a first try since December 2018.
Evans’ conversion made the score 22-0 but the perfect half was spoiled on the stroke of half-time as Ben Thomas conceded a penalty for entering a ruck at the side, the Italians kicked to the corner and as they brought their backs into play a beautifully delayed pass allowed Pierre Bruno to come off his wing and score, Carlo Canna converting.
As badly as the first half finished the second half started in even worse fashion as defensive lapses saw Zebre go from the edge of their 22 to over the line in one swoop, Federico Mori the man who went over at the end of a flowing move that defence coach Richard Hodges won’t enjoy watching back.
To add insult to injury Cardiff were becoming our own worst enemy at the same time as the away side were gaining momentum, losing possession from an attacking lineout and then botching the back field play as Matthew Morgan and Harri Millard covered a kick over the top to concede a penalty.
Fortunately Cory Hill stepped in to win a crucial turnover but at this point in proceedings the live action seemed to be put on the back burner as the TMO more than earned his wage. First Josh Turnbull challenged contact with his head at a ruck, with Daniele Rimpelli shown a yellow card, then there was a question of a shoulder charge on Hill which was deemed not worthy of a successful challenge.
Having seen Cardiff having all the captain’s challenge fun, Zebre then got in on the act alleging that Rhys Carre had shoulder charged Oliviero Fabiani, but the angles were inconclusive and play continued with both sides losing their challenges.
Some rugby did threaten to break out, as a Liam Belcher turnover almost allowed Lloyd Williams to kick through for Harri Millard, but the ball just went into touch, before some smart footwork from James Botham took us into the opposition 22, but the away side not rolling away allowed Jarrod Evans to make the score 25-12 as the game entered the final 15 minutes.
At this point the game went away from Zebre as their replacement lock Cristian Stoian crazily took Tomos Williams out at the back of a ruck with a shoulder start to the scrum-half’s face, and with the man advantage for the rest of the game the hosts pulled away.
From the resulting penalty Cardiff kicked to the corner and when the maul was pulled down Tomos saw the opportunity to put in a chip for Jarrod Evans to chase. The ball bounced up over the fly-half, but the covering Carlo Canna slapped the loose ball over the dead ball line and the TMO judged that to be an act of foul play, awarding a penalty try and the Italian sent to the sin bin.
There was still time for some dying minutes drama as the home side wrapped up the game after a flying Ben Thomas break allowed Harri Millard to sprint to the corner and finish brilliantly, before Zebre thought they’d got a consolation try with the clock red but a knock-on in the build up saw the score finish 37-12.
A second half that took 67 minutes to complete and a performance that wasn’t exactly smooth from Cardiff, but a bonus point win to take into the summer will have been exactly what Dai Young wanted as we say goodbye to “The Blues” and go back to our Cardiff roots.