At a time when French clubs are waving tempting cheques at top Welsh players, the unseating of Toulon in Cardiff Blues’ 19-15 win in the second round of the Heineken Cup was hailed with understandable euphoria.
The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, was yesterday reported as saying it would be “a terrible message to send” if Sam Warburton, the Blues flanker and national captain, followed Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate overseas. Warburton has declared publicly he would prefer to stay and occasions such as this at Cardiff Arms Park can surely do no harm.
Although Toulon are champions of Europe and joint leaders with Montpellier of the Top 14, they have won only one away match in six attempts this season, with losses to Oyonnax, Castres and Grenoble, and a draw at Montpellier. Still, the Blues are now live contenders in Heineken Cup Pool Two, thanks in part to the fightback bonus point they salvaged in their otherwise troubling defeat at Exeter the previous week.
High among the joyous aspects for a team beaten in every Heineken match last season, including twice by Toulon, was the unlikely way the Blues’ winning try two minutes from time unfolded. Their pack held firm in a scrum to establish the position from which Cory Allen careered into the 22, and Gareth Davies – not the sashaying fly-half of the 1980s but a semi-professional 29-year-old fly-half with regional appearances in single figures – sniped and scrambled to the goal-line, leaving Jonny Wilkinson and Frédéric Michalak in his wake.
“I told the players we had to take responsibility for the first-half performance [at Exeter], not the coaches,” Warburton said. “We tried to get the front five counter-rucking a bit and spoiling the ball. Obviously Gethin [Jenkins, the Blues prop who played for Toulon last season] had a bit of inside stuff and it was about the forwards fronting up physically. I don’t think we can get carried away, really. If someone said we’d have five points from two games and you didn’t know how it would come then you’d take that.”
Alex Cuthbert turned an ankle and needed crutches although the Wales wing was able to drive away from the Arms Park, where the artificial pitch – to the spectator’s eye, anyway – stood up brilliantly to the rain. Allen, a Wales Under-20 centre, is in the bracket of emerging players the regions must rely on if the star names keep leaving.
Wilkinson’s kicking has won many a match from the Côte d’Azur to Cardiff, where he played three, won three with England at the Millennium Stadium. But not this one. He had lost only one previous European or international match on Welsh soil and he warned of the consequences for Toulon if this muddled, low-risk performance was repeated.
“There’s not enough time left to waste days in this way,” Wilkinson said. “Cardiff deserved their win. For them it’s a great thing, but we’ve let ourselves down and we really need a good look at what’s going on individually and collectively. We’ve invested too much effort to let things like that happen too regularly. The odd error on top of another error, on top of another error – compounding those faults gives the momentum to the opposition. It’s all right to make mistakes but if you make too many against any team, you’re going to suffer.”