Cardiff Blues 34
WE still don’t know what the qualification criteria are going to be for next year’s Champions Cup, but we do now know for certain that Edinburgh will not be involved, after a rampant second-half performance by the hosts condemned Richard Cockerill’s side to a fifth-place finish in Conference B of this year’s PRO14.
Edinburgh still have two games left to play, against Dragons next week and Benetton at a date yet to be confirmed, but both those matches are now dead rubbers because they can’t catch fourth-placed Blues (who are 12 points ahead having played all their games), let alone third-placed Scarlets (who are 15 points ahead after a remarkable comeback win against Connacht at the same time as this match was being played).
Third will definitely be enough to get into the Champions Cup next year, fourth might be enough if the tournament organisers decided to make it a 24-team tournament, while fifth is just making up the numbers.
“Look, you get what you deserve and we have not been good enough over the season,” conceded head coach Richard Cockerill afterwards. “We have been missing our international players for a good chunk of it and we are a small squad with a small budget. We lost 12 or 13 guys to Test matches and there have been as many Test matches as league games so you just have to deal with the reality of that. We would have liked to play better at times but we haven’t been good enough. We will regroup, come back next season and have another bash at it.
“We have to show some character and deal with these disappointments. We have still to go to Racing [in the last 16 of this year’s Champions Cup], if I have any players left by then. So it is disappointing but how we deal with that is the mark of the team and the group.
“When we have our best players we are competitive. It has been a difficult season and we lost a huge chunk of players and we had no money to replace them. That’s life so we have to get on with it. We were in the game at half-time and it is disappointing to fall away like that. We don’t have the calibre of guys to step up at the moment and we’re looking at guys who are fourth in our depth charts.”
Turning his attention to this match in particular, Cockerill paid tribute to his team’s tenacity. “Cardiff had a great second and we struggled physically but I thought my team worked hard and we stayed in the game, and we could have come back but we were just not good enough in the end,” he said.
Edinburgh enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and territory during the opening quarter of an hour, but couldn’t tun that pressure into point, and were lucky not to fall behind when Jarrod Evans hit the post with a penalty following an Andrew Davidson offside.
Edinburgh did finally take the lead when Matthew Morgan ended up isolated as he tried to attack from deep, and debutant Charlie Savala stepped forward to slot the points with 20 minutes played.
A side entry from Magnus Bradbury allowed Evans to make amends for his earlier miscue and even the scores, but the visitors were soon back in front when some heavy carries from Mike Willemse and Luke Crosbie created a gap in midfield which George Taylor cut through to dot down under the posts.
Cardiff were then penalised for their back five ‘running round’ at a scrum on the stroke of half-time, but Savala’s touchline shot at goal drifted right.
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With news filtering through from Llanelli that the Scarlets were 33-12 down at the break, Edinburgh’s hopes of finishing third in PRO14 Conference, and thereby securing Champions Cup qualification for next season, were boosted – but they still needed to get through the remaining 40 minutes of this game without surrendering their lead, and they were up against a Blues side who also had plenty to play for.
The hosts narrowed the gap with an Evans penalty after a Mesulame Kunavula offside, and with the home scrum beginning to look like one-way traffic there was a sense of inevitability about Liam Belcher crashing over on 54 minutes to edge Cardiff into the lead.
To compound matters, Davidson picked up a leg injury whilst trying to defend that try and had to leave the field on a stretcher, and then Blues launched coruscating attack off turnover ball on their own 22 almost straight from the restart with Morgan and Aled Summerhill conspiring to send Ray Lee-Lo in for the try.
Edinburgh weren’t quite done yet and hauled themselves back into the contest when Bradbury sent captain Damien Hoyland clear with a lovely pass, and he then offloaded off the deck to send Taylor in for his and his team’s second try of the night.
But the visitors couldn’t build on that, and Cardiff stretched away again with a clever try for stand-off Evans, who raced onto Lloyd Williams‘ chip over the top from the base of a ruck, and strolled under the kindling unchallenged.
There was controversy with three minutes to go when referee Nigel Evans, in conversation with his TMO, ruled that Blair Kinghorn had knocked the ball on as he hacked forward to send Eroni Sau in for a breakaway try. The video evidence was inconclusive.
Blues marched straight back down to the other end and clinched the bonus point with an injury-time try for James Ratti.
Cardiff Blues: M Morgan; J Harries, R Lee-Lo, B Thomas, A Summerhill (H Amos 60); J Evans, L Williams; R Gill (R Carré, 60), L Belcher (K Dacey 64), D Arhip (D Lewis 60), S Davies (J Ratti 64), R Thornton, O Robinson (A Lawrence 72), E Jenkins, J Turnbull.
Edinburgh: D Hoyland; B Kinghorn, J Johnstone (M Bennett 60), G Taylor, E Sau; C Savala (J Blain 58), C Shiel (H Pyrgos 51); B Venter (M McCallum 74), M Willemse (S Kitchen 64), L Atalifo (A Williams 49), M Bradbury, A Davidson (J Hodgson 54), M Kunavula (A Miller 64), L Crosbie, V Mata (M Kunavula 74).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Cardiff Blues: Tries: Belcher, Belcher, Lee-Lo, Evans Ratti; Con: Evans 4; Pen: Evans 2
Edinburgh: Try: Taylor 2; Con: Savala; Pen: Savala
Scoring sequence: 0-3; 3-3; 3-8; 3-10 (h-t) 6-10; 11-10; 13-10; 18-10; 20-10; 20-15; 25-15; 27-15; 32-15; 34-15.