Blair boots the Blues past Toulouse
Cardiff Blues 15 Toulouse 9: Kiwi full-back kicks four penalties and wing Halfpenny another to bring misfiring French giants down to earth
The Cardiff Blues may be eighth in the Magners League but there is something about Europe that is starting to bring the best out of their players. Last year's semi-finalists notched up a crucial victory over three-time champions that was hardly pretty, but for their sheer commitment, the Blues deserved the spoils.
The former All Black full-back Ben Blair kicked all but three of his team's points before catching a monster garryowen by David Skrela as Toulouse threw everything into their search for a winning try in the final seconds. Blair's catch cleared the danger once and for all. Leigh Halfpenny's long-range penalty two minutes from time had nudged the Blues six points clear, moments after Florian Fritz had missed a chance to level the scores.
On this evidence it was hard to argue that either of these teams, who contested the first Heineken Cup final, in Cardiff back in 1996, would feature in this season's final, in Paris in May. Undoubtedly both can improve, but they will need to do so quickly in a pool that includes Harlequins and Sale. Every point will be crucial towards qualification for the quarter-finals, so the losing bonus point Toulouse took here was invaluable. The Blues will have to make sure they at least mach that in France next weekend.
Toulouse were without six front-line players but they still fielded a team bristling with talent. That talent failed to match the home team's hoofers in the kicking duel early on, but the initiative swung in the opposite direction as the half wore on and the Blues' Australian fly-half, Sam Norton-Knight, saw his confidence drain away.
This was not simply another example of boring, ping-pong rugby. There was a hint of adventure from both teams. Jamie Roberts acted as a midfield battering ram for the Blues, although he was well marshalled by Thierry Dusautoir. Frédéric Michalak used all his guile and cunning to try and ignite a delicious Toulouse back line, but the men outside him struggled to hold on to the ball under sustained harassment from their hosts. However, with Yannick Jauzion and Vincent Clerc around there was an ominous sense that the Blues were riding their luck. The line-out was a lottery, with neither team capable of securing regular possession.
Blair opened the scoring after eight minutes, and then Martyn Williams came close to creating a try. Toulouse were mugged as they attempted to run out of defence, after Blair's drop-goal attempt had fallen short. Williams spotted Halfpenny lurking out wide and kicked for the wing to chase, but the back-rower Shaun Sowerby galloped across to kick the ball out of play.
The Blues then produced the game's most impressive passage of play, after 23 minutes. It began with the scrum-half Gareth Cooper's opportunist break and it involved almost the entire pack of forwards before Roberts was bundled into touch eight metres short of the line. If it was not utterly spectacular, it felt like champagne rugby compared to some of the stuff served up during the recent Autumn Tests.
The Blues then had to withstand a testing 10-minute spell when they lost three senior players, Xavier Rush, Paul Tito and Tom Shanklin, to injury. Only the latter failed to return, however, and in his absence his team were aided by uncharacteristic handling errors from Toulouse. Blair extended the lead to 9-0 with penalties either side of half-time.
The second half brought more maddening mistakes and they became more common as the pressure built and the clock ticked on. It was not until the 54th minute that Toulouse got off the mark, through Fritz, after another Blues line-out went astray. Blair then landed a fourth penalty for 12-3 before Michalak and Skrela, with a delightful drop-goal, narrowed the Blues' lead to three points.
Fritz and Cédric Heymans sliced attempts on goal well wide as Toulouse looked to steal a draw, before excellent work by Dafydd Hewitt, who was on as a replacement for Shanklin, earned the penalty that Halfpenny kicked from 50 metres out.
Cardiff Blues: B Blair; L Halfpenny, T Shanklin (D Hewitt, 26), J Roberts, T James; S Norton-Knight (C Sweeney, 64), G Cooper; G Jenkins, G Williams (R Thomas, 73), F Filise, D Jones (S Morgan, 64), P Tito (capt; S Morgan, 29-38), A Powell (S Warburton, 69), X Rush (Warburton, 23-33), M Williams.
Toulouse: M Médard (C Poitrenaud, 56); V Clerc, F Fritz (Y Donguy, 75), Y Jauzion, C Heymans; F Michalak, N Bézy (D Skrela, 52); Y Montes (J-B Poux, 46), W Servat (V Lacombe, 46), C Johnson (D Human, 64), R Millo-Chluski (Y Maestri, 66), P Albacete, T Dusautoir (capt), S Sowerby, L Picamoles (G Lamboley, 58).
Referee: P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).
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