Cardiff Blues are through to the European Challenge Cup Final having produced an extraordinary defensive display to hold out French giants Pau in an epic tussle at the Arms Park on Saturday.
An early try for Gareth Anscombe was soon cancelled out by a touchdown from former All Black Conrad Smith, the centre crashing over following a charge-down on an Anscombe clearance kick.
The sides traded penalties, only for the Blues to go into half time with a slender 13-10 lead.
A nail-biting second half saw Pau show more composure in a bid to take control of the game, but a remarkable defensive effort from the likes of Josh Navidi, Nick Williams, Josh Tunbull, and man-of-the-match Ellis Jenkins kept Pau at bay, and sent the sell-out crowd into raptures at full time.
The Blues have really looked the part over the last three months. While scoring tries has never been an issue for Wales’ Capital Region, some disorganised and lacklustre defending has, at times, restricted their ambitions in recent years and condemned them to mediocrity. Not any more. Wales defence guru Shaun Edwards has the Blues well-drilled, and on Saturday they put in yet another gritty performance, and, crucially, they really do look as though they are defending for their lives, and for each other. As Ellis Jenkins pointed out in a post match interview at the weekend, they really are enjoying their rugby, and it certainly shows.
The Blues will travel to Bilbao to face Gloucester on Friday 11th May in the Final, the Cherry and Whites having seen off Newcastle Falcons in impressive fashion in the other semi-final at Kingsholm on Friday night.
Sadly, in the Champions Cup, the Scarlets were unable to make it a Welsh double, collapsing to a 38-16 defeat against European heavyweights Leinster. Three first-half tries put the hosts in complete control, and they continues to dominate after the break too, the Scarlets having absolutely no answer to the Dubliners’ raw power, skill and aggression.
There is no doubting Leinster’s credentials, especially with Johnny Sexton masterfully at the helm. However, few would have predicted such a one-sided affair. Indeed it was a sobering afternoon for the current league Champions. They simply never clicked into gear. Amid something of a back line crisis, they chose to play Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Patchell outside of perhaps their best positions – Halfpenny at wing, Patchell at full-back – and Sexton’s razor sharp tactical kicking ensured the Scarlets struggled to launch a meaningful attack all afternoon.
I have little doubt that Wayne Pivac and co. will learn a lot from this experience, and with the talent and skill currently at their disposal, I have little doubt they will be back in the knockout stages very soon. I really hope so.
There were two re-arranged Pro 14 fixtures at the weekend also, with a young and inexperienced Ospreys side going down 37-14 to Zebre in Parma on Saturday night. Both Zebre and Benetton have impressed this season, both proving tough to beat, especially at home.
It was nevertheless a disappointing result for the Ospreys, who I have no doubt will already have one eye on their Judgement Day meeting with The Blues on 28th April. The Dragons will also host the Scarlets at the Principality Stadium in the early kick-off.