By Jack Vavasour
Today, Cardiff Arms Park hosted the final hurrah of Welsh legend, Gethin Jenkins. Jenkins finishes his career as the most capped Welshman in history. His final appearance coming off the bench, yet he held the crowd’s applause for what can only be described as a stellar career, winning 4 Six Nations championships and both European club trophies.
A minute silence was respected at the beginning of the match in remembrance of fallen soldiers. Then the teams took to the field and all the pleasantries were forgotten.
Blues started well as Zebre conceded a penalty in the first minute, which Steven Shingler easily saw over the posts. This set the tone for the half as Zebre were sloppy and looked disappointing. Blues were good in defence, often rushing the Zebre attack and forcing mistakes.
Zebre missed an early opportunity to draw level with a simple opportunity, Francois Brummer hooked it wide and the Blues were safe. Zebre appeared to struggle in the cold, wet weather. The ball continuously went to ground, however, the disorganisation of the Italians could be seen more as the problem than just the wet weather. At points the players running lines didn’t even have their hands up ready to catch the ball. To be honest, the whole game was overshadowed by Zebre’s shambolic display.
The Blues kept threatening with dangerous runs but were often either stopped by Zebre or the wet weather, which clearly damaged some the Blues’ attacks. Cardiff did manage to cross the whitewash for the first time after some quick thinking from Shingler to put boot to ball sent Tom Williams in for the first try of the game. Shingler missed the difficult conversion that followed. The Blues continued to look threatening with dangerous lines, repeatedly asking questions of the opposition defence. Zebre, via Riccardo Raffaelle and Giovanni D’Onofrio, almost went over in the corner, yet were again turned over by Cardiff at a crucial time and lost all momentum. The Blues eventually got a penalty in a dangerous area and Shingler put his side even further ahead to make the score 11-0 in Cardiff’s favour.
Cardiff continued, for the rest of the game, to effectively rush Brummer and the rest of Zebre’s team to leave them with no options. Zebre hardly crossed the gain line again for the majority of the game. Furthermore, whenever Zebre did get close to Cardiff’s line, they would squander possession with a poor line out or lacking support at the breakdown.
The first-half ended 11-0 in Cardiff’s favour. Zebre looked poor in the first half, yet it was the better of the two halves for them. The Blues’ game plan was clear in the first-half, however, it was often derailed by silly mistakes, this improved in the second-half.
It only took the Blues seven minutes to score their first try of the second half, as Kirby Myhill powered over the line after a successful driving maul. Shingler completed the conversion to take Cardiff’s lead to 18 points. Zebre then again pressured the Blues’ line, but wasted another attacking line out on Cardiff’s 5 metre line. Even when they did manage to get possession to the wider channels, Zebre’s players didn’t look as if they wanted to take the ball up to the line and would try and get rid of the ball as often as they could. This is something that children are taught not to do, yet here we saw a professional side forget the basics and shovel the ball as much as they could.
The 57th minute welcomed Gethin Jenkins onto the pitch for the last match of his career, the ovation was electric as Cardiff Arms Park wished a fan favourite a final goodbye.
Following a strong period for the Blues, Summerhill almost powering over after running a devastating line, only to be tackled at the last moment. Blues fans didn’t have to wait long for more points though as Cardiff were held up over the line and a scrum was given. Cardiff’s scrum absolutely destroyed Zebre’s, pushing them back the full 5 metres over their try line, leaving Nick Williams to flop down onto the ball to score one of the simplest tries of his career. Shingler got the conversion, yet again, and the lead was extended to 25 points.
The Blues began to dominate even more as Zebre continued to look weak and under extreme pressure. Zebre were forced to kick to touch in their own 22. Cardiff won their own line out easily and Rey Lee-Lo ran a dangerous line and went through Zebre’s defence like a warm knife through butter, to touch down for Cardiff’s fourth, earning them a crucial bonus point. Lee-Lo was untouched by the Zebre defence, who looked almost surprised that they were playing rugby despite the line-out having just taken place and also being 68 minutes into a rugby match. Shingler slotted the conversion to make the Blues’ tally 32-0.
The Blues scored their final try as Lee-Lo, once again, found space in the wider channels and went over unchallenged. As is common in today’s game, Jenkins took the final conversion. Sadly the wills of 6,000 people couldn’t direct the ball through the uprights, yet the whole stadium were on their feet to celebrate a Welsh legend. The game finishing 37-0.
So often it is said that the losing side played better than the scoreline, this was not true today. Had Zebre scored any points then it would have been an unfair reflection on their Welsh opponents. The Blues, although not perfect, played the game they needed to and grew into the match against a dismal opposition. There was no threat in attack and hardly any resistance in defence, especially as the game progressed and the players tired. Cardiff only seemed to get better as they warmed up into the game. It was almost as if the Blues were playing a training match against a local side and were allowed easily to progress through the gears. The worst thing being, I don’t even think they hit full throttle. Admittedly, Zebre have many players away on International duty with Italy, however, your team is only as good as the worst player in your squad and today Zebre were humiliated by a well drilled Cardiff Blues side.
The Blues themselves were playing their third choice fly-half and could easily have made their own excuses, instead they came to play, and that they did. Cardiff dominated throughout the game and improved after a disappointing first half. Against better opponents they will not have time to grow into the game as they did today, however, this is something that they can work on. There were undoubtedly more positives to take from today’s game than negatives for John Mulvihill and his men.
With players such as Nick Williams and Rey Lee-Lo putting in performances like they did today, Mulvihill should look forward to a strong International period as he takes on teams far more effected than his own. Williams took the Man of the Match award and deservedly so, he ran hard and competed at the breakdowns, allowing no clean ball for the Italians.
Zebre have a long way to go until they seriously compete in the Pro 14, however, this should not take away from an outstanding display from a weakened Blues side. What a win, and what a way to send off a player like Jenkins. He will be missed, but will be remembered fondly.