Cardiff got the United Rugby Championship season off to a flying start with a bonus point win over Connacht at the Arms Park on Friday night, despite playing for an hour without a fly-half.
Dai Young had given starts to debutants Matthew Screech, for a second time of course, and Rhys Priestland, while Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo teamed up again at centre, and Josh Turnbull led the team from blindside flanker for the first time since being named club captain.
Unfortunately for Priestland his first competitive outing in blue and black lasted just 67 seconds as, in the process of making a strong rip tackle he caught an accidental knee to the head and never returned from the subsequent head injury assessment.
From the subsequent scrum Connacht won a penalty with Jack Carty opening the scoring off the tee, but Cardiff hit straight back. Owen Lane went close with a chip and chase but John Porch’s covering conceded a five-metre scrum and from that two huge carries from Willis Halaholo and Seb Davies created the space for Lloyd Williams to send Hallam Amos over, Jarrod Evans adding the extras.
However, we became our own worst enemy on the back of that, with first Jason Harries running a kick return down a dead end that saw Jarrad Butler win a turnover, before some weak tackling allowed Conor Oliver to break the defensive line and put Kieran Marmion over tracking from scrum-half, with Carty converting successfully.
Things then went from bad to worse for Cardiff as in the middle of a kicking battle Jarrod Evans and John Porch went up for an aerial contest with the Connacht man’s knee catching the opposition fly-half in the chest and forcing him from the field. With Priestland already removed, it fell to Lloyd Williams to slot in at the unfamiliar position of 10 with Tomos Williams coming on at scrum-half.
Over the next 10 minutes the game calmed down as the hosts adjusted to playing without a fly-half, managing to control possession and territory but struggling to turn pressure into points, before an offside at a lineout allowed Carty to increase the away side’s lead by three.
On the stroke of half-time that changed though as Carty’s forward pass inside his own 22 gave Cardiff an attacking scrum, and off the back of that Tomos Williams sniped from the base, got his hands through a tackle and offloaded for Halaholo to go under the posts, with Tomos taking over kicking duties successfully to secure a 13-14 lead at the break.
Connacht attempted to fight back early in the second half, but well won turnovers from Josh Turnbull and Dmitri Arhip kept them at bay, before a brilliantly worked attacking set from the blue and blacks took us from our own half to the opposition 22 in 13 phases and eventually some sharp handling freed Owen Lane on the left wing to battle over, with Tomos Williams converting superbly on the touchline.
The game’s balance threatened to swing in the away side’s favour when repeated Cardiff infringements allowed Carty to cut the lead by three and then saw Seb Davies shown a yellow card, but Carty was his own team’s villain again when he flew into a breakdown with a tucked arm and was also shown a yellow card.
Things went from bad to worse for Connacht a few minutes later as Owen Lane scorched around Tom Daly on the right wing but was taken out by Mack Hansen after he chipped ahead, with the Australian shown a yellow card and suddenly the hosts had a man advantage.
From the resulting penalty we kicked to the corner and set up a maul, with Tomos Williams sniping again this time down the blindside and drawing the solo defender to give Lane the easiest of run-ins for his second and Cardiff’s bonus point try. Williams added a second superb touchline conversion to make the score 28-16.
Moments later the game was wrapped up as a sublime Hallam Amos kick from just outside his own 22 bounced into touch inside the Connacht 22, giving Cardiff the throw and the resulting driving maul got close enough for Liam Belcher to peel off the back and score.
There was just time for the away side to grab a consolation score as Conor Fitzgerald released Sammy Arnold, and although he was stopped short he was able to offload for Kieran Marmion to go over. The job was done though and the blue and blacks welcomed supporters back to the Arms Park with a 33-21 win.