The Sun Brings out the Best in Cardif Blues
By Steve Matthews
April 23 2018
On a warm Spring Day, Cardiff Blues entertained Pau at the aArms Park and earned themselves a date in the Challenge Cup Final in Bibao. Here's how it happened.
When Danny Wilson was unveiled to the fans in the Cardiff Clubhouse nearly 3 years ago, most of those who attended left the evening in a positive frame of mind.
An erudite and amenable man to talk to, Wilson had had time to begin to understand the job he had inherited from Mark Hammett. He also had the very public backing of Cardiff Blues CEO Richard Holland. He was to be given three years to try and arrest the alarming slide the Blues had gone through, following the departure of Dai Young in 2011.
Fast forward to semi-final day, and the faith shown by the Blues Board has been rewarded. An admirable list of young players brought through the academy structure, and a sprinkling of more experienced heads to guide them through has seen the Blues meet at least one of their initial targets.
Going into the Challenge Cup semi-final on Saturday, the team had already qualified for Champions Cup Rugby next year. Consequently, they could concentrate on this game without any extra distractions. And boy did those youngsters deliver, giving Wilson the ideal send-off in what was most likely his last game at the Arms Park.
On a barmy spring day, the set-up at the Arms Park had ensured the fans would experience a real welcome at the ground. There was expectation that the club could deliver a result too.
Shining Young Talent
From the off, the likes of Jarrod Evans, Seb Davies, and of course the back-row stars in Josh Navidi and Ellis Jenkins were at the forefront and took the game to a star-studded Pau line-up.
Feelings that the Pau team were not going to take the game too seriously were dispelled by their selection. But, backed by a vocal Arms Park crowd, the team hit their straps almost from the off.
Within six minutes, Jarrod Evans, displaying remarkable composure for one so young, took the ball flat to the line and executed a sublime pass to Seb Davies, who took a wonderful angle to beat the first line of defence.
In a testament to the growth Davies has experienced over the last 18 months, when the field opened up in front of him, there was no sign of any panic. Composed, with the ball in hand, he toyed with the covering defence, and delivered a near perfect pass to Anscombe on the outside who was able to canter over the line and dot the ball down.
From that moment on, it appeared the nerves had been settled and the Blues looked comfortable in most facets of the game. Except for the scrum.
With the diminutive Thomas Domingo at loose head, Quentin Lespiaucq at hooker, and the giant Malik Hamadache on the tight-head, it was a worry to see the Blues eight at sixes and sevens for most of the first half.
But fret not. The platform Pau had in that facet of the game, was not matched in other areas. Penalties awarded there allowed the French opponents to kick to touch.
However, the Cardiff pack had been drilled so well leading up to this game in the art of the defensive line-out, that any ascendancy Pau felt they could gain as a result of that dominance, was snuffed out. Two clean line-out steals from Seb Davies and Josh Turnbull must have felt like a knife to the heart to the visiting team.
But this wasn’t the only area that the home side dominated. When Conrad “snakey” Smith charged down an attempted clearance from Gareth Anscombe, to dribble over for a try, there was a fear that Pau had found a foothold in the game.
Not so. The Blues were not to be denied. 7-7 became 10-10 after Evans and Tom Taylor had traded penalties, and at the ideal time, just before the interval Evans added a second to make the scores 13-10 at the break.
Post-match, Josh Navidi told the Sky Broadcast interviewer that big men hurt as much as anyone, if they are tackled hard enough. And boy was that mentality evident throughout the game from his team.
From the opening salvos, when he drove the beast that is Hamadache back in one of the first confrontations, the whole team defended with an admirable ferociousness. And once the tackled Pau player had gone to ground, you could guarantee a Cardiff jackaller would be there to make a nuisance of himself.
A Spirited Perfomance
And the spirit shown on the field was felt by the home crowd, who were energised to help their team get over the line. When was the last time Hymns and Arias or Bread of Heaven were sung so heartily?
There was only a third Jarrod Evans penalty scored in the second half, but that shouldn’t detract from an enthralling 40 minutes, and a continuation of that huge defensive effort shown during the first half.
And when that efffective front row began to be replaced early in the second half and the Cardiff 8 destroyed the subsequent first Pau scrum soon after, there was a tangible sense of relief around the ground.
Nothing could more epitomise the will to win in the squad than the cameo played by Ollie Robinson, who came on as a substitute 12 minutes from time. In that period, he engineered three vital turnovers. And of course, there was the final act of genius, another turnover at the final ruck of the game by Man of the Match Ellis Jenkins.
The whole afternoon owed so much to the work done by Wilson and his coaching team during his tenure. The announcement of his departure last December was another hammer blow to a besieged organisation. But instead of killing the team off, it seemingly galvanised them. Results took an upward curve soon after and have got to a point we couldn’t have dreamed of earlier in the season.
With the contribution of Sean Edwards – seen sporting his Cardiff Blues tie as a pitch-side pundit on Saturday – and that of Matt Sherratt, this season has seen the team reach new heights.
On the 12th May Cardiff will meet Gloucester in the Challenge Cup Final in Bilbao. It will be a fitting denouement to his time at the club if his team can lift the trophy, as a parting gift. I wouldn’t bet against it.
Turnovers Conceded – Cardiff 12 Pau 11
Lineouts – Cardiff 9/10 Pau 13/16
Defenders Beaten – Cardiff 25 Pau 12
Possession - 53% 43% Pau 47% 57
Territory – 57% 44% Pau 43% 56%
Cardiff Blues: 15 Gareth Anscombe; 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Owen Lane; 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Tomos Williams; 1 Gethin Jenkins (capt), 2 Kristian Dacey, 3 Anton Peikrishvili, 4 Seb Davies, 5 Josh Turnbull, 6 Josh Navidi, 7 Ellis Jenkins, 8 Nick Williams.
Subs: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Damian Welch, 20 Olly Robinson, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Garyn Smith, 23 Matthew Morgan.
Try: Anscombe; con: Evans; pens: Evans (3).
Pau: 15 Charly Malie; 14 Frank Halai, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Jale Vatubua, 11 Watisoni Votu; 10 Tom Taylor, 9 Thibault Daubagna; 1 Thomas Domingo, 2 Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes, 3 Malik Hamadache, 4 Daniel Ramsay, 5 Julien Pierre, 6 Ben Mowen (capt), 7 Sean Dougall, 8 Steffon Armitage.pqs: qs:
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By way of explanation, I'm a Sarries supporter and had intended to go whether or not our boys made it. The reason I had to knock it on the head was that the Bilbao authorities retrospectively cancelled my Airbnb booking. Not the most welcoming approach from a city that ought to have considered hosting the finals a privilege. I hope the European organisers take note.
Anyway, for those of you going have a fabulous time and good luck.