So they do have a heart to go with all that fancy frippery, some soul as well as swank. Cardiff Blues, also-rans in the Heineken Cup since their last appearance at the quarter-final stage in 2001, faced down Bristol in truly filthy West Country conditions yesterday – conditions that were so far up the home side's street, it seemed scarcely possible that the visitors would survive in one piece, let alone prevail – and in so doing, they earned themselves a knock-out tie in Toulouse. If it was not the greatest reward in the history of rugby, it was a whole lot better than recrossing the Severn with nothing.
It might even be said that the Blues sold themselves short. A third converted try would have edged them ahead of the great French club in the pecking order, thereby ensuring the tie would be played in the Welsh capital, and as the contest moved into stoppage time, the opportunity arrived. Bristol were penalised deep in their 22 and had Nick MacLeod completed the simplest of penalty punts to touch, there would have been an attacking line-out five metres from the line and, in all probability, a touch-down. MacLeod did not complete it, however. Instead, he overcooked his kick so badly, the ball went dead. It was waste on a criminal scale.
Still, they did enough to render irrelevant the efforts of another French club, Stade Français, whose predictably decisive bonus-point victory at Harlequins fell on stony ground thanks to this persuasive performance. The Blues carried far more of an attacking threat, not only out wide through the likes of Ben Blair and Jamie Roberts, but also in the back row, where Xavier Rush and the exceptional Martyn Williams arrived with footballing skills way beyond anything the Bristol loose forwards were likely to offer. This was not really about attacking threats, though. It was about attitude and cohesion and old-fashioned guts.
"For them to come here, where sides often crumble under pressure, and play like that was extremely impressive," admitted Richard Hill, the Bristol director of rugby. "They performed at Heineken Cup standard. We were extremely physical, hitting and hitting from the kick-off, and most teams wilt under that kind of intensity. The Blues didn't, and all credit to them. In a sense it was easier for them, because they needed a victory pure and simple while we had to win with four tries. That being said, they played with great composure."
Hill was bang on the money in his choice of vocabulary. Bristol's physicality was indeed extreme, with a capital "E". In the opening quarter, the gung-ho centre Rob Higgitt, who executes his big-tackling game with a relish bordering on the sado-masochistic, was knocking over opponents like so many skittles. Then, the back-rowers took over. Alfie To'oala, the square and solid Samoan, left poor Jamie Robinson in a shallow grave after lining up the Blues wing from the far side of halfway; Andrew Blowers, a former All Black who also boasts Polynesian heritage, did something similar to Roberts a short while later.
As the Bristol scrummagers were squeezing Cardiff's pips for good measure, there was a distinct whiff of "long day at the office" about proceedings. Yet after a scratchy opening in which Luke Arscott, a useful addition to Hill's back-line options, was denied a try because Anthony Elliott's round-the-corner scoring pass was ruled forward, the Blues forwards went to work with considerable vigour. Taufa'ao Filise, 19st 7lb on the hoof as dear old Bill McLaren would have said, drew the sting from Alex Clarke at the set-piece, Deiniol Jones put himself about to great effect at the line-out, and Paul Tito played the time-honoured "pain in the arse" role to perfection.
And once Bristol found there was nowhere to go up front, the entire game became a no-go area for them. Roberts crossed for the Blues, only to be pulled back for a forward pass from Tom Shanklin; Williams also touched down, before being denied by the television match official, who decreed he had made contact with the corner flag in the act of scoring. If there was not so much as a point on the board as the clock ticked down to the interval, there were signs that the drought would end sooner rather than later.
Sure enough, the Blues put the game beyond Bristol in the space of five minutes at the fag-end of the half. First, the brick-hard flanker Ma'ama Molitika scored from close range after Bristol lost control of their own scrum ball. Then, Gareth Thomas crossed in the left corner following a clever line-out routine based around Williams's precise delivery from the air. Ben Blair converted twice from wide angles, and the visitors were 14 points to the good – a winning lead if ever there was one, given the conditions.
It was now a question of arithmetic. Could the Blues draw level with Toulouse on the try-count by scoring a third, and then wipe out the French club's points advantage? When Blair succeeded with a penalty shot on 53 minutes, it seemed likely they would do the necessary. But Bristol refused to raise the white flag – "They're a proud team, as well as a tough one," said David Young, the Blues' head coach – and with MacLeod failing his late examination of nerve, the chance slipped away.Reuse content