One of the most closely fought pools in a vintage Heineken Cup round-robin stage is still there for the winning, but Cardiff Blues, those underachievers of repute, have the force with them. They could only split the try count with Harlequins last night and endured a rough ride up front, but their dynamism in open field and some unmistakable touches of class in the back row gave them the edge. Victory at Bristol a week tomorrow will propel them into the last eight.
A biting combination of rainfall and snowfall made its impact on the Arms Park playing surface and, had the kick-off been scheduled for mid-afternoon, there would certainly have been a postponement. But the weather relented in good time for proceedings to begin promptly and, as both sides prefer to play their rugby at a quick tempo, they were equally relieved at the unexpectedly firm going.
With Xavier Rush, the former Auckland captain and All Black No 8, in full warpaint there was plenty of urgency about the home side. The New Zealand contingent were particularly impressive. Rush made it his business to drive hard at Paul Volley early on, and while the Quins captain brought his rival to earth twice in quick succession, he was blown to the four winds on the third occasion.
Ben Blair was brimming with invention at full-back, while Paul Tito, perhaps the only ginger-haired lock in Maori rugby history and a dead ringer for the Miranda Richardson character in Blackadder, made his presence felt in the grunt-and-groan department.
The Blues were more than good value for the three-point lead opened up by Blair in the 15th minute, for the centre Dafydd Hewitt had been denied a try by the referee Romain Poite, who decided Hal Luscombe had been obstructed during the build-up, and a second opportunity went begging when Tom Williams, the diminutive Quins wing, poked his nose into a strong Cardiff attack from a position so spectacularly offside he might have died of embarrassment.
Yet the Londoners, still smarting with collective embarrassment after surrendering to Leicester in last Sunday's one-sided Premiership match at the Stoop were in no mood to run up the white flag this time. They scrummaged heavily in the first half, and with Chris Hala'ufia making light of Nick Easter's absence at the heart of forward matters, they might easily have turned round in close touch. As it was, Chris Malone, who conceded the penalty kicked by Blair, missed two shots of his own.
Those fluffed attempts hurt Quins, for shortly after the second of them, Hewitt cut a precise angle in running onto a Martyn Williams pass from a line-out and galloped in at the sticks. Blair converted with barely a moment's hesitation, and the Blues had the advantage they craved.
Even then, Quins were not of a mind to give way and when Malone finally spotted some potential going right, he found Mike Brown with a floated pass. Brown initially appeared to be crowded out by the wide Cardiff defence, but with a spot of twinkle-toed footwork and a clever spin out of contact, the full-back nursed Luscombe over for a try in the right corner.
Back to within three points, they must have wondered whether their long wait for a Heineken Cup victory, stretching back to 2002, might be over. But the errors of judgement came thick and fast as the third quarter unfolded, and the price paid was expensive. Hala'ufia was penalised for getting on the wrong side of a maul, and Blair claimed the three points. There were three more when De Wet Barry felled Hewitt with a high tackle – the Springbok was sent to the cooler as a result – and with their backs against the wall, they conceded a close-range try to Tom Shanklin.
Brown took advantage of a tapped penalty to cross on the overlap at the death, but the Londoners are now at serious risk of a winless Heineken campaign. Again.
Cardiff Blues: Tries Hewitt, Shanklin; Conversions Blair 2; Penalties Blair 3. Harlequins: Tries Luscombe, Brown; Conversion Malone.
Cardiff Blues: B Blair; J Roberts, T Shanklin, D Hewitt (J Robinson 76), G Thomas; N MacLeod, J Spice; G Jenkins, G Williams (D Goodfield 74), T Filise (J Yapp 78), D Jones, P Tito, M Molitika, M Williams, X Rush (capt).
Harlequins: M Brown; D Strettle, H Luscombe, D Barry (T Masson 70), T Williams; C Malone (A Jarvis 70), S So'oialo; C Jones, G Botha (T Fuga 70), M Ross, J Percival (O Kohn 70), N Spanghero, T Guest, P Volley (capt), C Hala'ufia (P Davies 70).
Referee: R Poite (France).Reuse content