Rugby Union: Cardiff at point of big returns

Harlequins 31 Cardiff 32
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The Independent Online
A match of thrills, skills and drama from the first whistle to the last saw Harlequins, buried and out of it at one point, battle back to within inches of a victory which would have ensured a place in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. Sadly Thierry Lacroix, having just converted Laurent Belligoi's 78th-minute try, scraped the post with his penalty attempt, and Cardiff were home by just one point.

It was a pulsating match, played at pace from the outset. Quins' 100 per cent European record this season looked in danger after 26 seconds - the time Lee Jarvis needed to land a drop goal. Three minutes later the Welsh side were into double figures when Rob Howley scuttled through and Jarvis, the leading points scorer in the competition, landed the conversion.

Relations had been strained between the two sides following the 90-day ban imposed on Cardiff lock Tony Rees for illegal footwork in their first meeting, a situation that was exacerbated when Cardiff demanded that Quins take action over an alleged illegal use of the boot by Lacroix on one of their players in the same match. The London club refused, saying that when viewed from a different angle Lacroix's actions were not deliberate.

So, in Cardiff's minds there was something at stake when they arrived in the capital. But all their passion was channelled into the game and they contributed magnificently to a great spectacle. They dominated the first half, going further ahead after winning a clean line-out. Bobby Ross thundered into the line before slipping the ball out to flanker Steve Williams, who jinked and crashed over.

The half closed as it had begun, with Cardiff scoring, this time from a Quins blunder. Rory Jenkins' attempt to fling the ball back from a seated position was snapped up by Emyr Lewis, who drove on and set up Jarvis and Leigh Davies to finish off the move with a blistering burst.

Lacroix had by then taken his penalty tally to three but it looked to be all over. Instead Harlequins swarmed all over Cardiff after the restart. Within 90 seconds Lacroix's fourth penalty had been followed up by the try of the match. Quins opted for a tap in their own 22, the ball was moved rapidly before Jamie Williams burst clear with Jenkins in support, then found Will Carling who surged upfield before feeding Belligoi, who raced into the left-hand corner.

Quins' second try was almost as exhilarating as their first. Again it was born in the 22, this time a line-out was the platform for possession, Carling again burst through and fed Williams, before Daren O'Leary touched down under the posts.

Cardiff immediately worked their way back into opposition territory and substitute Phil Booth was driven over from a line-out close in. But back came Harlequins into the Cardiff half and after some buffalo-like rushes from Keith Wood, the ball was worked out to Belligoi, who scored his second try, and Lacroix's conversion took Quins to within a point.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, W Carling, J Ngauamo (S Power, 40), L Belligoi; T Lacroix (capt), H Harries; M Cuttitta, T Billups (K Wood 18-26, 50-52, 63), J Leonard, B Davison, GO Llewellyn, R Jenkins, G Allison, L Cabannes.

Cardiff: R Ross; N Walker, L Davies, M Hall (J Hewlett, 77), S Hill (M Silova, 56); L Jarvis, R Howley; A Lewis (P Booth, 60-66, 73), J Humphreys (capt), D Young (L Mustoe, 40), J Tait, D Jones, S Williams, E Lewis (J Ringer, 66), G Jones.

Referee: E Murray (Scotland).