Back in the days before rugby union became an exercise in free love rather than a free-for-all, the cognoscenti on the terraces welcomed the odd mass brawl as a sign of authenticity - a reassuring confirmation that the two teams truly cared about what they were doing. Following the same logic, those most intimately involved in the running of the EDF Energy Cup must have been mightily relieved to hear as august a figure as Ian McGeechan, the most decorated individual in Lions history, break the habit of a lifetime by giving voice to his frustration with the refereeing. Maybe this tournament really does mean something, despite a universal assumption to the contrary.
McGeechan is far too diplomatic and cultivated a character ever to hit the roof in the fashion of the football manager who declared, rather magnificently: "I never comment on referees, and I'm not betraying my principles for a wanker like that." He leaves the fury to people like Shaun Edwards, his second-in-command, who, long after the 10,000-plus crowd had departed, could be seen stomping around the Arms Park with an expression as black as pitch, muttering: "Two different games! It's like two different games!"
As is his wont, the Wasps director of rugby made his point more quietly, slipping the stiletto between the first and second ribs rather than attempting decapitation by broadsword.
"We had no flow during the second half, and that was because we were too honest," he said of a defeat that profoundly undermines his side's chances of retaining the title they won at Twickenham last season. "I blame myself. I should have told my side to play off their feet. There again, the game will regress if we all take that approach. I've said for years that when the tackler is refereed properly, a lot of the problems at the breakdown are solved."
Those problems were not solved by Nigel Owens on Saturday - not to Wasps' liking, at any rate. In Guinness Premiership rugby, officials have been lavishing attention on the actions of the tackler, rather than the tackled player, for the very good reason that defenders have become adept at hanging around like a bad smell at the point of breakdown, thereby preventing rapid release of possession. If the game has not been transformed, it has certainly taken several turns for the better. Ashley Rowden has been particularly bold in allowing the more outrageous offenders to be rucked to high heaven before penalising them. Quite right, Ashley! It's the only language they understand.
Owens took a very different approach, one that allowed the hard-heads in the Cardiff Blues pack - Mark Lewis, Scott Morgan, the impressive Rhys Thomas - ample opportunity to mess Wasps around on the deck. The visitors were understrength up front anyway: Simon Shaw, Tom Palmer and Joe Worsley were nowhere to be seen, still less Lawrence Dallaglio and Johnny O'Connor, while Tim Payne and Raphael Ibañez started on the bench. Once they were denied their customary quick ball too, the wheels came off.
And how. The Blues had opened the try count through the rumbling Gethin Jenkins early on, only to be pegged back by two terrific answering scores in the space of a couple of minutes early in the second quarter. Yet once Chris Czekaj, a useful wing now unencumbered by the entirely pointless presence of Jonah Lomu in the Welsh capital, took advantage of some typically intelligent work from Martyn Williams down the left, it was one-way traffic.
They dominated their increasingly frazzled visitors after the break, accumulating points through a drop goal by Nicky Robinson, some on-the-button place kicking from the outstanding Ben Blair - a former All Black living in the present rather than the past, unlike Lomu - and a blinding finish from Mosese Luveitasua, who purred away from the covering Paul Sackey as a Maserati leaves a Robin Reliant in its slipstream.
Wasps had no answer. They could make no sense of life in bump-and-grind territory, Eoin Reddan could not shake off the attentions of the outstanding Williams for love nor money and once Josh Lewsey joined Ayoola Erinle in the ranks of the hamstrung, their back division looked like little boys lost. With Lewsey and Erinle on the field, they were able to match the physicality of Tom Shanklin, back in the fray after a whole season of injury hassle. With the likes of James Brooks and David Walder in their stead, they were nowhere near the same force.
One Englishman who did show up was Tom Rees, the young openside flanker, who, having suffered injuries aplenty of his own, made the best of a bad job. Yet he still found himself on the humiliating end of a masterclass from Williams, comfortably the finest footballing forward in the British game. There was something constructive about everything he did at the weekend; once again, he captured the essence of the best of Welsh rugby with a performance full of wit and wisdom. Had the Lions hierarchy been properly tuned in, they would have picked him for the opening Test with the All Blacks in 2005. The fact that Christchurch experienced the whole of its winter in one night would have reduced his effectiveness to something approaching zero, but at least the selection would have been positive in its intent.
Gareth Jenkins was a member of that hierarchy, but he had nothing remotely approaching a final say on matters of state. His views count in Wales, though - he is, after all, the national coach - and the odds against him not picking Williams to face the touring Wallabies next month are just about as long as those facing the Lions on that ghastly night in the south island of New Zealand.
Cardiff Blues: Tries Jenkins, Czekaj, Luveitasua; Conversions Blair 3; Penalties Blair 4; Drop goal Robinson. Wasps: Tries Lewsey, Brooks; Conversions Staunton 2; Penalty Staunton; Drop goal Staunton.
Cardiff Blues: B Blair; M Luveitasua, T Riley (N Macleod, 51), T Shanklin, C Czekaj; N Robinson, M Phillips (E Fairhurst, 75); G Jenkins, R Thomas (D Goodfield, 81), T Filise (G Powell, 69), D Jones, R Sidoli (J Goode, 75), S Morgan (B White, 77), M Williams (capt), M Lewis.
Wasps: J Lewsey (D Walder, 50); P Sackey, A Erinle (J Brooks, 8), F Waters, T Voyce; J Staunton, E Reddan (S Amor, 77); A McKenzie (T Payne, 63), J Ward (R Ibañez, 40), P Bracken, M Purdy (G Skivington, 72), R Birkett, D Leo, T Rees, J Hart (capt, J Haskell, 11).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content