The season came to a battling, but injury ridden, end for Cardiff Blues on Friday evening as Stade Francais dashed dreams of a late Champions Cup qualification with a convincing win in Paris.
Danny Wilson was able to name a relatively strong starting line-up, welcoming Rhys Gill, Josh Navidi and Tom James back from fitness in three changes from the side that beat Newport Gwent Dragons last time out. The bench was certainly young though, with Corey Domachowski, Seb Davies, Tomos Williams and Rhun Williams all under 23.
However, disaster started to strike even before kick-off when James pulled up in the warm-up. His replacement, Rhun, was carted off less than a minute in after turning an ankle innocuously while tackling Waisea Nayacalevu, leaving Garyn Smith to take his place having just been a travelling reserve 30 minutes earlier.
When Rey Lee-Lo was forced off with just seven minutes on the clock it signalled a nightmare start for Wilson tactically, and when Morne Steyn opened the scoring off the tee it seemed like a long evening might be in store for Cardiff.
Fortunes started to change though as the Blues gained a foothold in the game, with a half-break from Matthew Morgan and a smart turnover from Ellis Jenkins keeping us in touch, before a scintillating Willis Halaholo run put us right on the front foot.
Josh Navidi was pushed into touch just five metres from the line to bring that attack to a close, but with possession stolen back at the resulting lineout it was a huge opportunity for Cardiff. Matthew Rees and Steve Shingler both went close, before Gareth Anscombe produced a beautiful inside pass for Macauley Cook to cross.
With the conversion kicked the visitors wasted no time in returning to the redzone as Alex Cuthbert marked his 100th appearance with a trademark run down the right wing before sending Halaholo clear. The centre was brought down with the line at his mercy, but Nick Williams saved his blushes as the number eight crashed over from a yard out.
3-14 up with 15 minutes left of the first half, but Stade Francais were far from beaten. Showing a bit of the quality that saw then win the Challenge Cup last week, Jonathan Danty released his centre partner Meyer Bosman who was only stopped from scoring thanks to the last ditch efforts of Morgan and Lloyd Williams.
Cardiff cleared their lines, but a midfield slip from Navidi allowed Jeremy Sinzelle to break through. Morgan and Jenkins brought him to a halt but Stade recycled the ball well and eventually Nayacalevu crossed the line.
The conversion made the score 10-14 and Stade kept their pressure up despite another excellent break from Halaholo, but some superb maul defence from Cardiff and breakdown work from Jenkins and Navidi in particular kept the home side at bay.
Half-time arrived at the perfect moment to re-group after a lung busting first half, but unfortunately returning to the intensity of the first 40 minutes was an issue for Cardiff Blues, and within two minutes of the restart Stade flanker Antoine Burban released Sergio Parisse.
Sekou Macalou was on the end of the move but was held up Cuthbert, before replacement prop Giorgi Melikidze was able to burrow over from close range.
Cardiff tried to play their way back into the game, looking strong off first phase attack, but it was this tactic that caused us trouble in the end as we tried to run the ball from inside the 22, only to spill possession and Stade took advantage with Mathieu de Giovanni crossing despite a valiant defensive effort.
By now Shingler, who himself had come on as a replacement, had been forced off with injury, meaning Tomos Williams had to take a spot on the wing with Garyn Smith moving inside. With Fa’ao Filise tiring rapidly the scrum started to wain and the home side were maintaining their attacking dominance.
A kick return came from Macalou with added interest, but the Cardiff defence held strong until Stade produced some beautiful handling skills in midfield before the left winger, who is actually a lock by trade, was able to dot down in the corner.
At 29-14 down with 20 minutes to go a cricket score was on the cards, but this is where the Cardiff players really earned commendation for their performance. With nothing to lose Anscombe chipped the kick-off short down the middle and Cook did brilliantly did flick the ball back.
Strong carries from Halaholo, Smith and Corey Domachowksi gave Anscombe front foot ball, which he appeared to have squandered with a chip kick towards Tomos Williams. However, the diminutive stand-in winger rose like a salmon to pat the ball back inside to Cook for the lock to score a brace and cap off a very good individual season.
Just as the comeback seemed to be on though, injury struck again as Willis Halaholo was forced off. With no backs replacements left it meant Sion Bennett came on and Ellis Jenkins pushed into the centre.
From the very next play this makeshift setup was exposed as Stade came off the top of the lineout, whipped the ball wide and Macalou scored his second of the evening. Game, and season, over.
Stade ran in two more tries courtesy of replacement hooker Laurent Panis, and replacement scrum-half Clement Daguin, making the final score 46-21 thanks to two missed conversions, but the scoreline was unimportant by the end of the game, which had basically turned into a 7s match such was the openness.
Cardiff actually finished the game with 14-men, to rub extra injury into the wound, as Kirby Myhill was knocked out but is thankfully not too bad. It meant Ellis Jenkins was playing in the centre, taking lineout throws and defending at full-back. A real captain’s performance from the very impressive young man.
You have to give credit to the boys for the way they continued to plug away even with such an injury depleted side by the end of the game. It showed a real passion and desire to do the jersey and the fans proud, and if we can can build on the quality touches shown on top of that, then there’s hope for next season.
There’ll be a slightly better depth to the squad next year, with some of the youngsters who have received Pro12 exposure being able to step up capably, as well as a few summer signings arriving, and if we can avoid the massive injury crisis we faced back in December time then Cardiff Blues may be back challenging at the top of the Pro12.
It’s a big summer ahead, as Danny Wilson aims to get his coaching setup and style of play right, but if the hard work shown on Friday is anything to go by then this group of players are ready to step up, and, of course, us Cardiff Blues fans will be there every step of the way. As long as the WRU don’t ruin things that is….