Stade Francais 46-21 Cardiff Blues

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….

Cardiff 37-21 Bristol

Cardiff Blues secured qualification for the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals with a bonus point victory over Bristol at the Arms Park. A sloppy first half was rectified by a resurgent second period, and it means a trip to Gloucester will await as the knockout rounds begin.

Danny Wilson made nine changes to the side which scraped a last-minute win in Pau last week, with a number of first team players returning to start in a timely manner. Rhys Gill, Kris Dacey, Nick Williams, Gareth Anscombe and Blaine Scully were all available, and were joined by Scott Andrews, Lloyd Williams and Rey Lee-Lo in the XV as they were recalled following being rested in France.

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Blaine Scully returned to the starting XV

 

 

As you might expect with plenty of players coming back into the fold there was a fair bit of rustiness early on, as shown by Nick Williams making a trademark break from the back of a midfield ruck, before throwing a blind offload straight to the covering defender.

The attacking line looked much better straight away with Gareth Anscombe standing flat at first receiver with Steve Shingler in the inside centre position, but defensively it seemed there was a bit of mis-communication on occasion as too often the line was thinly manned, reducing line speed and allowing Bristol to run at single first up tacklers.

Missed tackles became more common as we seemed to be slipping back to pre-Christmas defensive patterns, but fortunately a bungling Bristol attack meant we weren’t punished as we probably deserved to be.

It took until just before the 20th minute for Cardiff to really get going, but when they did it paid dividends. Shingler made amends for an earlier missed touch from a penalty to find the corner, with Bristol pulling down the first driving maul and the centre again setting up a 5m lineout.

Nick Williams couldn’t quite get over from a choreographed set piece before the backs failed to make headway in the red zone as Alex Cuthbert and Rey Lee-Lo were both denied short. In the end it came to Kristian Dacey to celebrate a Wales Six Nations call-up and charge over for his third try in six games.

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Kris Dacey is congratulated on scoring the opening try

 

 

5-0 up after a lacklustre 20 minutes, and soon Cardiff pulled away thanks to Gareth Anscombe. Nick Williams gave the ball away with another unsuccessful offload attempt in midfield and Bristol looked to take advantage. However, a choreographed pass from Bristol’s flanker Nick Koster was picked off by our fly-half to sprint home from inside his own half.

Shingler kicked the conversion on the second try for a 12-0 lead, and was back off the tee on the half-hour mark as Tusi Pisi’s interception breakaway was called back by referee Adamson for an offside infringement.

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Gareth Anscombe sprints away for the second try

 

 

Comfortably in the lead it seemed that Cardiff were cruising at this point, and it was showing in the play particularly defensively as Bristol were easily making yards on each carry. In the end it allowed scrum-half Andy Uren to wander through a large gap around the fringes and chip over Matthew Morgan, benefitting from a very fortunate bounce before offloading to Jordan Williams a yard out.

Within 10 minutes Bristol were right back in the contest as Cardiff attempted to spin the ball wide but the away side’s blitz defence put pressure on Shingler who’s pass was intercepted by Williams. His pass inside didn’t find the hands of Jack Tovey, but the centre was able to volley the ball on and collapse on top of the ball over the line.

The rub of the green for Bristol on both occasions, but it’s no more than Cardiff deserved really as they took their foot off the gas and allowed the away side back into the game as shades of recent Pro12 form returned.

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Jack Tovey tries to control the ball before scoring his try

 

 

15-14 up at half-time but it’s difficult to imagine Danny Wilson was a happy coach, and post-match interviews from the players seemed to confirm that. Despite learning that Newport’s loss in Brive had put us through to the knockout rounds regardless of our result, there was still a step up in performance required for personal pride more than anything.

In the end it was down to none other than Alex Cuthbert to set the tone for the second 40 minutes as he set off on a vintage Cuthy rampage down the right wing, making at least 15 metres and leaving Bristol defenders strewn down the touchline.

The front foot ball set up an attack that seemed to be over when Bristol secured the turnover right on their line, but a poor clearing kick made them few yards and from the resulting lineout Cardiff were able to quickly move the ball across the field for Matthew Morgan to grab a poacher’s finish.

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Matthew Morgan reaches to put Cardiff in the driving seat

 

 

At this point it seemed only inevitable that the bonus point try was coming, but Cardiff tired to unnecessarily force the attack and a few handling errors crept back into the game. Eventually the phases were worked to allow an overlap of backs on the left hand side, but Rey Lee-Lo’s final pass was picked off by a gambling Jordan Williams to run the length of the field to score under the posts.

As Shingler missed the conversion from the third try, Bristol were actually in the lead for the first time during the encounter, however the Cardiff kicker notched an excellent penalty from out wide to make the score 23-21 with 20 minutes still on the clock.

From that point onwards it was all Cardiff, starting with the ever impressive, and increasingly heroic, Blaine Scully making yards where he had absolutely no right to in midfield before offloading to Tomos Williams on his shoulder.

The scrum half was brought down short but the ball recycled to go right and Rey Lee-Lo seemed to score in the corner. However, referee Adamson had blown up already, deeming a fumble in midfield to go forwards, but go back for a penalty to Cardiff from the initial breakdown where replacement Bristol hooker Max Crumpton was sin binned for killing the ball.

Cardiff managed to mess up the lineout from five metres out, however a moment of magic from Matthew Morgan made up for that as he collected the clearing kick just inside Bristol’s half, setting straight off on the counter as he isolated a forward in the defensive line and, using Rhun Williams’ support run, threw a dummy for the breakthrough. Sheer speed eventually saw him over the line as Thretton Palamo was nowhere in catching him.

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Turning on the afterburners for Morgan’s second try

 

 

I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’ve been frustrated with Nipper over the past few months, with high ball and defensive frailties on show at times, but he is the most dangerous counter attacker that the Arms Park has ever witnessed, and moments like his second try are worth the entry fee alone.

The last word very nearly went to Morgan as well, with Bristol suffering from being a man down the full-back was in heaven as he picked another gap from deep, but the back field defence of the away side covered. He didn’t panic though, and got his head up to find Sam Warburton supporting his inside shoulder for the flanker to cross the line.

In the week it was announced he was relinquishing the Wales captaincy I’m sure the try would be a nice confidence booster heading into the Six Nations, and a timely reminder that he is more than just a world class operator at the breakdown. As it happened, this fifth try would wrap up the scoring as Shingler’s conversion made the score 37-21.

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Sam Warburton rounds off the scoring

 

 

It’s possible that we may even have scored a few more tries not for some wayward attacking late in the game as a few players ran out of puff, but a first try bonus point win since the opening day of the season was a welcome result. Hopefully scoring five tries against non-Italian opposition for the first time since December 2015 will be a nice confidence booster.

With the qualification already secured thanks to Newport’s loss, the win gave us a few options about who we might play depending on results elsewhere. In the end it came down to Sunday afternoon’s game and Stade Francais winning against Harlequins meant we avoided Ospreys and now have a trip to Gloucester to look forward to.

Hopefully the win on Saturday can be the start of a run of results, with the senior players now getting a few weeks off to regain their match fitness fully, and come back to take advantage of Cardiff not losing an extortionate number of players to Team Wales call-ups.

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The likes of Morgan and Tomos Williams will still be around the next few weeks

 

 

Building up to that Gloucester match it would be great to see the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Ellis Jenkins and Tom James back fit, and George Earle back from suspension, to create some real competition for places and give the fans a cup run that we really deserve after the form of the last few years, never mind in recent months.

Saturday’s second half performance is a great basis to work off. Big carrying from the likes of Josh Navidi and a resurgent Jarrad Hoeata, the speed of Tomos Williams at scrum-half mixed with Gareth Anscombe’s flat position at first receiver and creative flair, the balance of Steve Shingler at 12 and a fantastic return to form of Alex Cuthbert are all good signs, amongst plenty of others.

There’s parts of the game to work on, the attacking breakdown work was poor in the first half, the scrum was under pressure throughout and the lineout let us down on multiple occasions, but it’s much easier to rectify small areas on the back of a win, rather than conducting comprehensive reviews after yet another disappointing defeat.

The Anglo-Welsh Cup returns over the next few weeks to allow some of the younger and fringe players the chance at a decent amount of game minutes, and also those senior players who’ve played a lot over the last two months some time to rest up before Pro12 action returns on Sunday 12th February with the visit of Connacht to CAP.

Let’s hope this win can do for this season what a home European win over Montpellier did for 2015/16 and inspire us back into some sort of challenge for the top six, as well as now battling on the continental front. If we get a kinder run of injuries who knows what might happen?

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Sam Warburton acknowledges the support after a convincing win

 

 

Bath 38-3 Cardiff

There was a bonus-point win for Bath on Thursday night as Cardiff Blues slipped to second place in pool four of the Challenge Cup. The main talking points of the game though, not for the first time this season, revolved around refereeing decisions, or lack of them.

Danny Wilson had made three changes to the XV that won the reverse fixture five days before, with two enforced changes seeing the injured duo of Kris Dacey and Alex Cuthbert miss out, Kirby Myhill and Cory Allen their replacements. Meanwhile the experience of the returning Macauley Cook was preferred to young Seb Davies at flanker.

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Previous week try scorer Alex Cuthbert was injured

 

The danger would be Bath though as they recalled 186 caps worth of international experience thanks to names such as Taulupe Faletau, Francois Louw, George Ford and Jonathan Joseph. A different prospect from the last game was in store.

Bath would dominate the early possession and territory, but within two minutes there was a sense that the evening may be a long one for different reasons as French referee Alexandre Ruiz managed to miss a high tackle on Blaine Scully collecting a Lloyd Williams chip, and then penalised Rhys Gill for holding on despite Kahn Fotuali’i being clearly off his feet.

Despite the hosts keeping Cardiff pinned in our own half for much of the opening period, the defence looked in very good shape. There was no narrowing of the defensive line as we have seen in recent weeks, allowing first up tackling to be much better as two players were able to put in hits, rather than one-on-one situations being opened up easily in midfield.

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Cardiff defended solidly on Thursday

 

Instead Bath went to the high kick more often than not, testing Matthew Morgan at full-back, but he was ably supported by Steve Shingler and some inaccurate George Ford kicking. Pressure was re-invited quickly though as, despite exit strategies partially working thanks to good carrying from Josh Navidi in particular, lengthy Williams box kicks straight to Taulupe Faletau were all too often.

Add to that recipe the referee allowing Bath to enter in the side at Cardiff attacking mauls and it was an uphill struggle. Still the defence held strong though, forcing handling errors from the home side in our 22. Eventually the pressure got too much as Sam Warburton infringed in a tackle, but fortunately England fly-half Ford managed to miss the easy penalty.

Cardiff’s first real attacking opportunity, aside from Morgan counter-attacks, came in the 20th minute when a Tom Homer mistake saw his kick go long from just outside his 22 and gave us the scrum. Halaholo made ground from the set piece towards the red zone, only for Francois Louw to go off his feet and allow Steve Shingler to open the scoring.

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Matthew Morgan faced an aerial bombardment

 

Soon following though was Bath’s first clear cut attack as George Ford spotted no cover and chipped for Ben Tapuai to race onto. Matthew Morgan made a good tackle and fortunately Fotuali’i was too close for the offload to stick, ending with a Cardiff scrum.

Although it seemed the attack was over for the hosts, with Mr Ruiz around it never really was, as from the put in Bath stepped straight to the left and wheeled the scrum until Faletau could collect the ball. Moving possession quickly from left to right the Cardiff defence wasn’t in place and a three-on-two overlap saw hooker Ross Batty run back on the angle to go under the posts.

The away side came back firing and Williams almost sparked an instant reply as he counter attacked from deep, allowing Cory Allen to work a two-on-one with Macauley Cook, but the final pass went forward. From the resulting scrum Fa’ao Filise was penalised and Ford kicked the penalty to make the score 10-3 after half an hour.

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Ross Batty grabbed the game’s first try

 

Despite the hammering in both possession and territory, Cardiff were clinging on in there and eventually returned to attacking as Morgan shrugged off one defender and fed Blaine Scully. The American made ground down the wing before bouncing off Fotuali’i in a collision that would actually end the winger’s evening with a head injury.

The ball was recycled and ground made by James Down set up Cook to go free into the Bath 22. Phases went by as Lee-Lo and Warburton both went close before quick hands from Allen allowed Shingler some space to get over in the corner, but a last gasp Tapuai tackle saw possession knocked on.

Referee Ruiz was playing advantage to Cardiff but Shingler’s penalty hit the left post before falling agonisingly on the wrong side of the cross bar before Bath cleared and the first half drew to a close at 10-3.

A tough half but one to take confidence from for sure. In fact the team may well have been a little disappointed not to score a try, but would certainly have taken being just seven points behind at the break. What we didn’t know it what was to come.

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Cardiff clung on, literally, in parts

 

The game changed, and was won for Bath, in the first ten minutes of the second half. The first incident was inside a minute after the restart as Kirby Myhill, who just moments previously had performed an excellent leg lift tackle on Elliot Stooke, was yellow carded for a tip tackle on Dave Attwood.

For me it was a harsh card as, in the referee’s explanation, he described Myhill as lifting, turning and driving Attwood into the ground. I, however, can see no evidence of a drive at all. He lifts him above the horizontal there’s no question, and it was a penalty offence, but to see yellow for it seemed unnecessary at best.

Down to 14 and defending deep in our own half, Cardiff were moved about from flank to flank until Bath had drawn in enough defenders for George Ford to float a long pass out for Jack Wilson to finish past Lee-Lo and Morgan. Ford notched the conversion and things were looking ominous.

Not as ominous as the replays being shown on the big screen though as, between the try and conversion, the referee was taking a look at some possible foul play in the maul that started the move. Unfortunately for George Earle, as he looked to move through the mass of players, a finger brushed the eye area of Tom Ellis.

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George Earle received his marching orders to change the game

 

Now there’s no chance it’s intentional, but with the multiple replays and slow motion shots of the incident making it look considerably worse than it actually was, the referee was left with no choice by the letter of the law. You’d like to hope that any further disciplinary consequences will be very minimal due to the clearly accidental nature of the eye contact, but I don’t hold much hope on that part.

That may seem like the end of the game changing moments, especially if you read the match reports of Bath or the covering media, however straight from the kick-off Bath lost possession, Lloyd hacked on and eventually forced the hosts to touch down behind their own line. A 5m scrum and step up Alexandre Ruiz with a mind boggler.

First scrum, Cardiff lead by Matthew Rees and assisted by stand-in flanker Cory Allen, smash Bath who wheel to the left. Cardiff penalty. Second scrum, Cardiff smash Bath who wheel to the left. Cardiff penalty. Third scrum, Cardiff smash Bath who wheel to the left. Bath penalty.

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Scrums were the talking point of the night for me

 

A quite remarkable piece of bottling from the referee who was clearly aware that a third Cardiff penalty would have resulted in a yellow card to Bath and penalty try. With half an hour left that would have made it 14 v 13 and kept us in bonus point range, but instead we faced being 14 points behind with a two-man disadvantage.

That of course was always going to end in tears and Bath set about taking advantage. First former Cardiff player Aled Brew scored after neat offloads from Ford and Jonathan Joseph released Faletau, although the final pass from Fotuali’i had more than a hint of forward about it. Three days with the TMO and a lot of poor camera angles proved inconclusive.

Ross Batty secured the bonus point by picking off a Nicky Robinson pass rushed by Bath’s superior defensive numbers, before right at the death Francois Louw took advantage of a tired back field defence from Cardiff to turn over the ball and give Elliot Stooke the easy run in to finish off the scoring.

 

Despite all that the away side were still disappointed not to come away with a try in the second half. Macauley Cook made a nice half break before forcing an offload, while he was also involved in some neat inter-play with Lee-Lo and Ellis Jenkins to release Morgan.

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Cory Allen couldn’t stop Batty getting his brace

 

Two periods of play, both including 5m attacking lineouts, also ended with handling errors as yet again there was a sever case of white line fever amongst the Cardiff ranks. Except on one occasion where Nicky Robinson certainly appeared to have touched the ball down over the line. Despite the television coverage replaying the incident, neither the referee or the TMO were aware of it, or perhaps they were and didn’t fancy checking. Who knows?

All in all a disappointing evening over the bridge, and unfortunately I once again find myself writing about how questionable refereeing decisions have had a big impact on the game. Having said that, there is a similarly deja vu aspect to the continuing try scoring issues that we are having from within the red zone.

On a positive note there were excellent individual performances from Macauley Cook and Josh Navidi, while Matthew Morgan and Cory Allen have noticeably grown in confidence over the last week.

There’s a welcome rest period now until the first of the festive derbies when we welcome Newport to CAP on Boxing Day. A good chance for the players involved over the last week to recover, for the injury list to decrease somewhat and for the wrongs of Thursday to be put right. Let’s have a big backlash, come on Cardiff!!!!

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Willis Halaholo was one of those looking tired on Thursday

 

Cardiff 28-3 Bath

There was a dramatic return to form for Cardiff on Saturday as a distinctly disappointing Bath side were swept aside comfortably. The win maintains an unbeaten record in this season’s Challenge Cup and signals our first home victory since October and the last set of European matches.

On paper the game was not setup to be much of a spectacle. Cardiff were looking at a list of 14 injured players, including the likes of Tom James, Gareth Anscombe, Josh Turnbull and Gethin Jenkins, while Bath had Matt Banahan, Anthony Watson and David Denton missing, as well as resting first team players George Ford, Taulupe Faletau and Luke Charteris.

Add the list of those missing to some miserable Welsh weather, and the fact that the Challenge Cup is a distinctly second rate competition not awarded the luxury of television coverage or a Television Match Official, it wasn’t exactly the most enticing encounter.

Danny Wilson managed to cobble together 23 fit players, with Matthew Morgan starting in the back three to replace Tom James, Rhys Gill came in for Gethin Jenkins, while Sam Warburton returned to the back row alongside young Seb Davies who made his first start in a senior competition, as Ellis Jenkins and Josh Turnbull were unavailable.

Brad Thyer, Jarrad Hoeata and Cory Allen were all called onto the bench, with Kirby Myhill having to provide back row cover as Cam Dolan was ruled out due to regulations on non-Kolpak players.

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Matthew Morgan started at full-back

 

The conditions were clearly going to play a major factor on the afternoon’s proceedings and inside two minutes a mistake from England winger Semesa Rokoduguni saw him drop the ball into a retreating, and offside, team-mate. Steve Shingler took the chance to open proceedings with a well-taken penalty.

It was the Cardiff fly-half who really ran the show early on with a magnificent range of kicking pinning Bath back inside their own half, and with the visitors not able to clear their lines to the same effect it was giving some good counter-attacking platform.

Matthew Morgan was looking dangerous and turned provider for Blaine Scully to run a beautiful line and break through Bath’s defence. Despite being brought down the away side infringed at the breakdown allowing Shingler to double the lead as Cardiff opted to kick for the posts rather than going for touch as they have done too often in previous weeks.

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Blaine Scully made some early metres

 

As the first half reached the mid-point the match became a battle of the scrums with particularly Bath making a number of handling errors in the slippery conditions. Rhys Gill was the loser in the first set as away tighthead Max Lahiff’s short bind forced him to go to ground, allowing Tom Homer to put the West Country side on the scoreboard.

However the next time Gill was victorious as he worked out Lahiff and turned the screw. Shingler made it a hat-trick of penalties, with the scoreboard showing 9-3 after 25 minutes.

Both sides had opportunities to break the try deadlock before half-time, with Morgan doing well to halt Max Clark after the Bath centre found an easy route through Cardiff’s midfield, and a clever offload to Matt Garvey was nullified by an unfortunate trip from the away captain.

Cardiff had the best chance for a try though as the turnover from that Bath attack inside our 22 turned into a kick chase as Willis Halaholo, who impressed with his footballing ability all game, spotted there was no full-back and chipped ahead. Clark went back but couldn’t hold onto possession allowing the lively Alex Cuthbert to hack on but he was brought down short and with neither Halaholo or Josh Navidi able to move the ball wide we were eventually pinged for holding on at the ruck.

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Alex Cuthbert looks to take advantage of Max Clark’s mistake

 

Steve Shingler had a chance for a fourth penalty but the kick from an unrealistically distance fell short. Despite this, and the occasional dodgy kick from hand, Cardiff had by far the better half thanks largely to Shingler’s game management, but with the scoreline still close there was still plenty of work to do in the second half with Bath surely to come out firing.

They did indeed start the stronger, mounting the first attack of the half and going through a few phases in the red zone, however another handling error allowed Rey Lee-Lo to break away free. The Samoan centre was unable to find Cory Allen on his outside though, who had come onto the wing for the hobbling Blaine Scully, with Scott Andrews replacing Fa’ao Filise in the other early change.

It was the Cardiff fly-half who would be the key man, in slightly fortunate circumstances, as the first try of the game was eventually scored 10 minutes into the second half. Receiving the ball on Bath’s 10 metre line he had few options on the short side but stayed calm, a rarity amongst our players in recent weeks, turning right then spinning left as the away defence were left bamboozled and parted like the red sea.

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Steve Shingler started the move

 

Finding Cuthbert on his soldier the winger took the ball close to the line before offloading to Halaholo but the centre was stopped short. However yet more uncharacteristic composure saw the ball shifted from right-to-left across the width of the police and eventually Matthew Morgan was rewarded for his best performance in a Cardiff short so far with a try.

Shingler missed the conversion but he was back on the tee just five minutes later as Cardiff scored their second try. A high kick was not dealt with by Bath full-back Homer who allowed the ball to bounce into Sam Warburton’s arms. Our captain for the day ran clear before turning into a fleet footed winger as he tried to step past Rokoduguni in the most unlikely play of the day.

The ex-Army winger managed to get a tap on Warburton to bring him down but again the ball was recycled quickly and eventually Cuthbert marked his return to form by carrying three Bath players across the line in a somewhat comical manner, but it was one of the most celebrated tries that I’ve seen at the Arms Park as there’s always been a desire for Alex to do well at Cardiff.

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Somewhere under there is Cuthbert scoring the second try

 

Shingler’s conversion made the game safe at 21-3 with 25 minutes to go and a bonus point was almost in sight, but successful attacks eluded Cardiff for much of the rest of the game. Cory Allen, Seb Davies and Rey Lee-Lo all tried to fashion half-breaks but as the rain fell heavier the game became more error-ridden than ever.

The one big plus point was the scrum under the guidance of replacement hooker Matthew Rees, which completely dominated Bath towards the end of the game and saved the reputation of the set piece which was due to take a further hit as the lineout was once again dodgy.

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Sam Warburton is agonisingly ankle tapped by Rokoduguni

 

Individual performances of note came from Rhys Gill, who really met the challenge to step up into Gethin Jenkins’ shoes, Seb Davies, who kept the workrate up and the quality high on his first proper start for Cardiff, Steve Shingler, who guided us around the field masterfully and showed off a magnificent range of kicking despite the odd loose one, and finally Matthew Morgan, who was solid in defence and even better in counter-attack.

A special nod to Alex Cuthbert though who was on the most part back to his destructive best. He was hungry for work, offering a carrying action and making plenty of supporting runs, which eventually resulted in a more than deserved try. My man of the match for sure.

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Matthew Morgan scored the opening try

 

There was just time left with two minutes to go for Scott Andrews to masquerade as the arch-poacher. Cardiff trundled up to Bath’s try line but were turned over at the last. However, with the ball placed back over the try line from the ruck, Andrews snuck in perfectly to simply apply downward pressure and referee George Clancy awarded the try.

A final kick from Shingler saw him to 13 points for the day and left a convincing final score of 28-3. A result which certainly underlined just how poor Bath were, a massive disappointment in fact, but that’s not to take away from Cardiff’s performance as the players dominated tactical kicking and at the breakdown, expertly targeting the frailties of the visitors to run out comfortable winners.

Our first win in any competition for five weeks, the first time we conceded less than 10 points since January, and the first time we played a full 80 minutes at CAP with 15 men since mid-September, were all positive stats and I hope the team can use this result as a real platform to kick-start a successful festive period.

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Seb Davies put in a shift on his first proper start

 

Of course Bath will be a different prospect on Thursday night at The Rec, with Francois Louw, Luke Charteris, Dave Attwood, Kahn Fotuali’i, Taulupe Faletau, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Fruean all in line to be involved they will certainly be much stronger as they look to close the five point gap over them at the top of the pool.

However if we came away with a losing bonus point, especially if Bath are restricted to only four points, it will be a great success. Fingers crossed our injury list is massively reduced by then but, in reality, Newport at home on Boxing Day has to be the priority rather than rushing players back unnecessarily for Thursday.

If you want to come along on Thursday there are tickets available direct from Bath Rugby, and Cardiff Blues Supporter’s Club have limited seats left on their bus. Come on Cardiff!!!

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Rey Lee-Lo puts in a tackle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cardiff 27-12 Pau

It’s two wins from two to start the European Challenge Cup campaign for Cardiff Blues this season, but there was mixed emotions at the Arms Park after Friday night’s win over Section Paloise as the bonus point try could not be clinched to extend the lead at the top of pool four.

Danny Wilson rang the changes for the visit of Pau, well known as a French side who completely disregard the Challenge Cup as a competition. Kirby Myhill made his first start after injury, while James Down appeared for the first time in the senior set up this season. In the back line the big hitters of Gareth Anscombe, Rey Lee-Lo and Tom James were all rested as Steve Shingler, Garyn Smith, Cory Allen and Blaine Scully were given starts.

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Garyn Smith was recalled to the starting XV for Pau’s visit

 

It would be a number of those backs combining just two minutes into the game to create the first score as Shingler take the ball to the reshuffled Pau backline. The pass went flat to the outside into the hands of Allen who went clear before finding Dan Fish on his outside. The full-back carried it on, sucking in the last defender, before feeding Scully to go over in the left hand corner.

Shingler clinched a cracking conversion from the touchline and extended the lead with a penalty not long after as Cardiff dominated early possession but struggled to get any territory. This lack of cutting edge came back to haunt the home side as Pau gained a penalty, turned down the kick at goal and went for the corner. The driving maul was held up, but Daniel Ramsay came on the crash ball to go over.

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Blaine Scully crashes over for the first try

 

The conversion was butchered by the French team but they weren’t deterred as they dominated the remainder of the first half. A number of very kick-able penalties were turned down as they went repeatedly to the corner but could not make their visits to the red zone count as a mixture of Cardiff defence and Pau attacking errors hindered them.

Cardiff weren’t immune to errors of their own though as a number of passes failed to find hands in decent attacking positions and handling errors contributed to more turnovers than would be expected. Pau were well organised in defence and we struggled to break them down, while a number of poor kicks contributed to an increased period of pressure.

The only highlights from the rest of the first half really were a Steve Shingler penalty to add another three points to the scoreboard, and a sickening hit from Fa’ao Filise on Pau tighthead Jeremy Hurou which left the Frenchman out for the count, while the King of Tonga just walked off. Quite incredible, the hit and the noise it made. Anyway, 13-5 at half-time and much improvement needed.

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Steve Shingler’s boot provided the rest of the first half highlights

 

There was certainly an improvement to the scoreboard in the second half. Scott Andrews replaced Filise and added some energy with a half-break. A penalty was secured for offside and Shingler put the ball into the corner but nobody ended up jumping for the lineout, although Pau managed to knock the ball back over their dead ball line.

Maybe it was a master plan by Cardiff who took the ball from the back of the resulting scrum, with Lloyd Williams finding Shingler who fired another flat miss-pass across the line to feed Allen into a large gap on the outside of Pau’s midfield. The Wales international cruised across the line from 15 yards out for a timely confidence booster after a tough start to the season.

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Cory Allen touches down for his first try of the season

 

Cardiff looked on the up as Pau were seemingly disintegrating into a mire of unforced errors, with more territory resulting in more scoring chances for the home side. A scrum on the visitor’s 22 gave a good platform to keep the scoreboard ticking over 20 minutes into the second period.

With the set piece towards the middle of the pitch the backs set up with Shingler and Fish directly behind the scrum, and they switched to the blindside as the ball came back to Williams. Fish and Scully went on dummy runs against the all-at-sea Pau defence, who hadn’t covered the blindside, which were bought by the French defenders allowing Allen to ghost through again and step past the full-back.

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And over Allen went again shortly after

 

Two tries on his return to the side after being dropped ahead of the trip to Ospreys will do the centre a world of good, as he acknowledged post-match, as well as give Danny Wilson a welcomed selection headache with the arrival of New Zealander Willis Halaholo imminent and Rey Lee-Lo in the form of his career.

Shingler kicked both conversions from Allen’s tries to make the lead comfortable and, with substitutes adding some fresh legs to the side, an assault on the bonus point try was required. However, what we got was somewhere just over 10 minutes, right until the final whistle, of Pau possession inside the Cardiff 22.

There was penalty after penalty as referee JP Doyle was insistent on penalising us every time Pau went close to the line, then scrum after scrum as the French attackers were repeatedly held up over the line. Doyle eventually lost patience with forcing himself to give a penalty on every set of phases, so selected Jarrad Hoeata completely at random for a yellow card.

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There was a lot of this in the last 10 minutes

 

With no time on the clock Pau did finally break the line thanks to centre Bastien Pourailly going over under the sticks and Thierry Lacrampe adding the extras. The big question following the game was ‘why on earth did we not just let them score 10 minutes before?’ There was a waste of a huge amount of time defending the line rather than getting on with securing the bonus point.

The defending itself was valiant and a great improvement on the other 70 minutes of the match, and the last two games in general, but pointless in terms of the game. Cory Allen stated post-match that he, and the coaches, felt the team got more out of the last 10 minutes defending than going for the bonus point, but I could not disagree more. We were comfortably ahead at the time and had a chance to put another point between ourselves and Bath before the double header in December.

Nevertheless a win is a win and another four points to the total keeping us top of pool four. There were definite glimpses of quality and it was handy to rest a number of key players ahead of a big derby with Llanelli as the Pro12 returns next week. Specific mentions for Cory Allen’s return to form, Steve Shingler’s passing ability and Seb Davies making his senior debut off the bench just 10 minutes into the game after James Down’s head knock.

Hopefully there is a bit of brushing up on the finer points of the game, and a review of on and off-field decision making at crucial points in the match. The signs do look good for Friday though and hopefully the first part in a repeat of last season’s double over our Turk rivals to the West. Come on Cardiff!!

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Seb Davies looked very impressive on debut

 

Bristol 20-33 Cardiff

*The report below is that from the Cardiff Blues website due to myself being away for the game and no full match replay being available on television or online*

Cardiff Blues kicked off their European Challenge Cup campaign in style as they claimed a bonus-point win over Bristol.

Cardiff 74-6 Calvisano

Cardiff narrowly missed out on a place in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals despite hammering Italian side Calvisano 74-6 on Friday evening at Cardiff Arms Park. Montpellier’s win over Harlequins in France meant that we finished third in the group with no hope of qualification, a case of so close yet so far in this season’s European campaign.

After two last minute disappointments in the previous games, with Montpellier’s late try depriving us of a win out there and Ben Botica’s penalty stealing an extra bonus point at Harlequins, it was a somewhat complicated mathematical formula that could see us qualify. However, what was certain was that we needed a bonus point win over Calvisano.

With that in mind Danny Wilson named a clever team, keeping it strong overall, but also picking a few players with a point to prove. Gavin Evans and Tavis Knoyle started at 12 and 9 respectively, having played bit-part roles in recent weeks, with American Cam Dolan starting at blindside flanker, and young Ethan Lewis in alongside namesake Dillon in the front row. It was also good to welcome back Gareth Anscombe and Sam Warburton from injury, just in time for the Six Nations conveniently, but still.

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Effectively we blew the Italians off the park in the first half, playing with exactly the speed and intensity needed to stop the part-timers getting anywhere near us. Six minutes in and we had the first try with Tom James in the corner. By 25 minutes the bonus point was confirmed with Cory Allen crossing before turning provider for James again and then Navidi coming off the back of a rolling maul.

A Florin Vlaicu penalty was the only response from the Italian team to the wave after wave of Cardiff attack. It wasn’t long after the bonus point was confirmed that Tavis Knoyle performed an increasingly trademark tap-and-go, before a perfectly waited chip over the hesitant defensive line let Dan Fish collect the ball and turn on the afterburners. Anscombe missed his first conversion of the game to leave the score at 33-3 going into half-time.

Tom James takes the game to Calvisano

After 15 minutes of bemoaning Montpellier leading at half-time in France, Cardiff came back out to make the win even more comprehensive in the second half. It could have been extended after just a few minutes had Alex Cuthbert not been running through treacle on the right wing with nobody between him and the line, but he was chased down and bundled into touch.

It was a whole 10 minutes into the second period before Calvisano bungled up a lineout to allow the arch poacher, Ethan Lewis, to pounce for his first senior try. Hopefully many more will come for Cardiff! That opened the floodgates once more as just two minutes after, Tom James scored the try of the night using his pace around the outside and stepping back off his left foot beautifully to secure his hat-trick.

Soon after the scoreboard was added to once more as Allen doubled up on tries thanks to an interception and then Cuthbert made up for his earlier lack of pace by finishing off a flowing move that started from Scott Andrews, through Warburton and Anscombe to the Wales winger.

Gareth Anscombe made his first start of the season

Vlaicu did kick another penalty for the visiting side, but soon the Cardiff subs put them behind their posts again as Aled Summerhill crossed following good work from Lloyd Williams and Cameron Dolan, to be followed by Rhys Patchell and Macauley Cook scoring the 10th and 11th tries of the night. Final score Cardiff 74-6 Calvisano.

Obviously as we all know, Montpellier hammered an under-strength Harlequins, who I will now hate forever, consigning us to third in the pool. It was extra disappointing the next day as Newcastle beat Brive meaning we would have qualified, although we’d only have played Quins again, but that’s not the point.

Let’s hope at least that the players take great heart out of the fact that they ran two of the strongest teams in Europe, Harlequins and Montpellier, all the way to the last weekend of pool games. It will be a reminder next season that we can compete in Europe, and hopefully set the tone for the remainder of the Pro12 season which we can now concentrate on fully.

We welcome Edinburgh to CAP next weekend in the last game before the Six Nations, and we must be aiming for a big win to really create a platform to kick off from. The top six is nowhere near out of our reach yet, and if we play with the pace and passion of the last few weeks, coupled with the amount of home games still to come, this could yet be a great season. Come on Cardiff!!

 

Aled Summerhill got on the scoresheet