European Challenge Cup (Thursday 19th November, kick-off 7.45pm) – Cardiff Blues 20 Harlequins 32 – at Cardiff Arms Park
The journey from London to the centre of Cardiff – whether by rail or road – is a bit of an ordeal at the best of times and thankfully, committed to being elsewhere anyway, I had a perfect-enough-excuse-for-me not to make it last night as Quins notched two bonus point (4 try) wins out of two in their group. Instead I watched it from the comfort of my sofa live on Sky Sports 2.
Cardiff, who play in the Celtic nations’ Pro12 league, have made an indifferent start to the season but were fielding the strongest team they could – including seven internationals – because under the new European cup rugby structure the winner of the junior European Challenge Cup gains an automatic place in the highly-lucrative main competition the following season. [The phrase ‘strongest team they could’ accommodates the fact that just before kick-off Sam Warburton, the Welsh captain, had to withdraw after being taken ill earlier in the day].
In contrast Quins were putting out an eclectic mix of first teamers and squad players.
Fans were divided as to whether this was (1) a prudent husbandry of resources (saving key players for more important future fixtures); (2) a shrewd hunch by Conor O’Shea and his coaching staff that a makeshift selection would be strong enough to steal a victory, or (3) a signal that Quins had written off the game and hoping for a losing bonus point at best.
It may not surprise regular readers that I was an adherent of the third possibility.
Once the ‘minute’s clapping’ tribute to Jonah Lomu – a worthy effort considering his brief stint playing for Cardiff Blues just before finally retiring as a player – was over, the opening exchanges were not at all encouraging from the visitors’ point of view.
Cardiff came out of the blocks on their artificial pitch with forceful élan and for the first twenty minutes pinned Quins down in their own half, by which time they were leading 6-0 via two penalties and unlucky that, without going upstairs to the TMO who might well have countermanded his decision given the Sky video evidence subsequently replayed several times for the viewers, the referee had disallowed a try under the posts for an illegal ‘double movement’ which almost certainly wasn’t [by which I mean that it was a double movement, but not an illegal one].
Quins’ biggest concerns to that point – apart from our lack of possession and field position – were the injuries to Jack Clifford, the Quins’ much-tipped for England honours flanker (and captain for the day), who was badly kayoed when tackled in full flight and James Chisholm, the Number 6, who was led off with a leg problem.
The 6-3 half-time score scarcely flattered Cardiff, despite the eye-opening statistic highlighted during the halftime analysis that they’d been obliged to make over 120 tackles as the Quins’ machine had gradually spluttered into life with improving passages of inter-passing as the break approached. Both Sean Fitzpatrick (the great All Black hooker/captain now a Quins director) and Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards agreed that, if Cardiff continued to be under similar pressure in the second half, sooner or later something was likely to ‘give’.
They got that right.
Quins emerged for the second half with much greater purpose. Mark Mapletoft, our backs coach who was interviewed pitchside as the game progressed, admitted that during the interval – for the second match running – our lads had been given a heavy rollicking and it certainly showed.
Fifteen minutes later, in quick succession, Quins scored two long range tries – the first an intercept by our Scottish international winger Tim Visser and the second a brilliantly-worked reverse-pass diagonal switch (straight off the training paddock) between fly-half-for-the-day Ben Botica, who for me had a disappointing game, and Ollie Lindsay-Hague playing at 15 who scorched over the whitewash for his second excellent score in two outings.
Although this put blue water between the sides on the scoreboard Cardiff regrouped and came back with commendable effort, forcing Quins to defend for long periods, but it was not enough – two more Quins tries followed (the second by substitute Danny Care in overtime) as the clock ran down.
As was noted quite early on by the commentators, the arrival of Dave Ward (the Quins first team hooker), playing out of position at flanker as a replacement for James Chisholm, was a catalyst for much of Quins’ best work as he popped up all over the park in both attack and defence, often in tandem with the imperious Nick Easter who continues to demonstrate his class every week at the back of the scrum.
Ward totally merited his ‘Man of the Match’ Award as chosen by co-commentator Ieuan Evans.
Quins now seem to be in control of their group and their excellent run of form continues, which is what worries me. It’s bound to end sometime …