By Sion Ford
Friday night saw the Guinness Pro14 return to the Welsh capital with the Blues kicking off their domestic campaign against defending champions Leinster. Despite losing in the dying minutes of the game, by a single point, John Mulvihill’s men will have plenty to take forward from this clash against this season’s title favourites.
It was the Blues who opened the scoring, thanks to an early Jarrod Evans penalty, which was swiftly followed by a well-worked move to put Lee-lo over. From the off, it looked as though the foundations which had been laid last season by Danny Wilson and, in particular, Matt Sheratt had been built upon by the new regime. Some good handling put Evans into space and he took advantage of the line break to feed Samoan international Rey Lee-lo an easy finish.
Leinster tried to bring themselves back into the game after that, but – another encouraging sign from the new Blues management – they were met by a defensive effort that had an edge to it. Phases of pick and go play were met with a resolve in the tackle area and the breakdown that has only recently made its way back to the Arms Park, and eventually the pressure told.
After having turned Leinster over, the Blues raced into attack with Jarrod Evans dinking over the retreating backline and Owen Lane collecting. He then seemed to have finished off the opportunity, riding the tackle of the covering Leinster defender, but Nigel Owens opted to penalise Lane for a double movement when the momentum from the tackle appeared to have seen him home.
Queue a momentum shift, and it was Leinster who then took the home team to task. Their carrying into the Blues’ half was to be a problem throughout the match, but it was Leinster’s pressure on the Blues’ set piece which would see them score their first try. The Blues, having won a crucial line out to relieve the pressure, reverted to character and shot themselves firmly in the foot – Lloyd Williams threw a pass which was gleefully received for Leinster’s first try, scored by James Tracy, some five metres out from the Blues’ try line.
A penalty from Ross Byrne saw Leinster extend their lead to 11-8 before the Blues rallied, with Jason Harries making a lovely break down the right hand side and offloading to Lloyd Williams. Or so everybody thought, but Williams appeared to have been tackled well before the ball reached him, and Leinster managed to scramble the ball away. What happened after that suggests that there are still issues in the age of the TMO – Nigel Owens opted not to refer to the TMO, instead taking the advice of his linesman and, as a result, called play back to a penalty against the Blues for holding.
The Blues were not to be deterred, though, and after another chance went begging – this time, Lee-lo drifted into touch after some good work in the loose by Halaholo – the Blues took their opportunity. A quick line-out was taken, with Dmitri Arhip and Seb Davies taking the ball up the middle, before it went wide to Harries who dotted down in the far corner on his home debut.
Half time ended with a Leinster penalty, converted by Byrne, and although the sides were separated by a single point (in the Blues’ favour), it didn’t feel like a fair reflection of what had happened. Some strong showings from the Blues’ new recruits in Harries and Arhip boded well, as did the inclusion of Rory Thornton – to have a loan player, and a young one at that, come in and call the line-outs was a big call, but perhaps a sign that the Osprey might finally find his feet in Cardiff.
During the half-time proceedings, there was a nice touch from the Blues management as Peter Thomas presented the recently-retired Sam Warburton with his 100th Blues cap, before a video montage of the world’s rugby elite wishing him the best in retirement.
And so the second half began, the Blues keen to build on the momentum they had put together in the first half whilst Leinster would have looked to up the physicality of their game. It only took five minutes for the Blues to cross the line again, Jason Harries finishing off a beautiful move down the blind-side that was created by the silky handling of Owen Lane and Matthew Morgan.
Another try followed, this time a second for Lee-lo, after the Blues capitalised on having turned Leinster over and then varying their attack from one side of the pitch to the other. To see what is still a relatively young Blues team confidently handle and carry the ball, with intensity and purpose, perhaps underlined the noises that have been coming from John Mulvihill since he took over. Emphasis has been placed on skill, speed and enjoyment of the game, and it was clear that all three of these factors were in play for Lee-lo’s second.
It would be Leinster who finished the game the stronger, with their second try of the night coming in the 53rd minute after a maul was met with little resistance from the home forwards. Following the try, which made it 29-19 in favour of the Blues, Leinster sought to make inroads into the Blues’ half, but for the most part their attacking play was limited to one-up runners off the scrum-half or pick-and-go carries from their forwards.
Perhaps the biggest concern of the night was the reappearance of Blues players falling off tackles in the second half. Some half-hearted efforts gave Leinster a clear path to the try line and, after some sustained pressure, replacement scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park went over after Ross Byrne put a beautifully measured kick over the Blues’ defensive line.
Whereas the Blues’ new signings had a visible impact on the game, the same could not be said for Leinster’s marquee signing of the off-season. Joe Tomane, in comparison to his midfield partner O’Loughlin, appeared to be going through the motions rather than getting stuck in and was no great loss after he was taken off.
A Jarrod Evans penalty in the 70th minute saw the Blues extend their lead to 32-26, but it wouldn’t prove to be enough. Leinster bundled their forwards over, Barry Byrne taking the plaudits at the end of an onslaught at the Blues’ line, and with the conversion right in front of the posts, Ross Byrne was never going to miss.
The final score was proof of just how close the Blues had come to toppling the champions, and while such a close result which saw the Blues pick up two bonus points shouldn’t cause too much upset, the fact is that this was a game which they let get away from them. Still, encouraging signs from the Cardiff Blues in their opener, and they now embark on a trip to Italy to face Benetton on the 8th of September.
Final score: Cardiff Blues 32-33 Leinster