The Welsh performance in this season's Heineken Cup has not been quite as bad as the English display, but this is a bit like saying Michael Howard was not as useless a Tory leader as William Hague. All things considered, the regional sides to the west of the Severn could, and should, have delivered more during the pool stage, and if Cardiff Blues made it into the knock-out phase by the skin of their dentures yesterday – at this level, players tend not to keep their own teeth for long – they messed up in victory by letting a home quarter-final slip away at the death.
Twice in the closing seconds, they managed to make a nonsense of attacking line-outs within a few feet of their opponents' line. Had they maximised either opportunity, they would have claimed the try-scoring bonus point they craved – a result that would have paired them with Toulouse in their own backyard, no one's idea of a cakewalk but winnable on a good day, rather than Leinster "over there", which is about as winnable as the national lottery.
Strangely, the Blues seemed unaware of the necessity of securing a fourth try until their coaches started hollering from the touchline, having been made aware of Edinburgh's scoring exploits at Murrayfield. With the Tongan back-rower Maama Molitika adding some much-needed oomph off the bench, they duly doubled their dynamism rate and put the Parisians under siege. Sadly for the Welshmen, a lack of precision at key moments betrayed them.
By way of making matters worse, the Blues lost Gethin Jenkins, their kingpin prop forward, to a knee ligament injury midway through the second quarter. The Lions Test player left the field largely under his own steam, but he was hobbling badly and looked as happy with life as Victor Meldrew on a wet Monday morning, with a gas bill on the doormat. If, as seems certain, Jenkins struggles to recover in time for the start of the Six Nations Championship, now less than a fortnight away, the Wales hierarchy will no doubt share his dark view of the world.
Any schadenfreude the Welsh might have felt at England's increasing inability to fire anything more than volleys of blanks in European competition – even the Premiership champions Saracens, needing precious little from their trip to Treviso, spent much of yesterday in serious danger of coming up short before making their way laboriously into the quarter-final draw – had evaporated during the hour and a half before kick-off. In that time, the Swansea-based Ospreys were run ragged by Biarritz. The rugby population at large badly needed the Blues to show something of the best of themselves, as a means of revving up some interest in the club game in these parts. They started brightly, the scrum-half Lloyd Williams claiming a chargedown try on five minutes and embarrassing the World Cup-winning Springbok centre Frans Steyn in the process. But Racing Metro were far from blase, despite losing four of their previous five pool contests; indeed, they felt they had something to prove, having scored heavily in most of their matches, only to find themselves edged out by the late scores of the most infuriating variety. They worked their way back on terms early in the second quarter when Josh Matavesi scored down the left after an inventive short-side move involving Steyn, Sireli Bobo and the scrum-half Sebastien Descons, and with Fabrice Estebanez asking questions in midfield, the Blues found themselves in more strife than they might.
Happily for them, Leigh Halfpenny was in good shape on the markmanship front while the officials were in generous mood. When Halfpenny made a half-break nine minutes before the interval, the new Six Nations wing Alex Cuthbert appeared to knock on as he attempted a one-handed gather of the pass. The referee did not see it that way, however, and permitted Cuthbert to hare off into the distance and complete the touchdown in the right corner.
But again, the Parisians retaliated, Estebanez running through Parks and allowing the flanker Antoine Battut to set a ruck near the posts, from which Bobo finished. A quick exchange of penalties between Halfpenny and Steyn, rival siege-gun merchants who both kick the ball miles, left the argument finely balanced and when the half-time whistle went, the visitors held a one-point lead at 24-23.
Even when Cuthbert, a natural finisher, claimed his second try straight from the restart, taking advantage of the Parisians' failure to deal with a high kick from Dan Park to squeeze in at the corner in Bobo's despairing tackle, there was a whiff of Sod's Law in the air. Whatever Halfpenny delivered on the penalty front was matched by Descons, from short range, and Steyn, from the back end of beyond and the visitors might have finished the stronger but for Matavesi's bone-headed waste of a prime attacking position – his wholly unnecessary drop-goal attempt was lamentable – and Steyn's poorly-timed dummy run in midfield, which left two Blues defenders flat on their backs and Small reaching for his whistle.
So it was that the Welshmen prevailed. But come early April, when they take on the holders at one or other of Dublin's prime union venues, they will wish, with every fibre of their being, that they had nailed one of those late line-outs and earned themselves the right to stay in their own capital city.
Scorers: Cardiff Blues: Tries Cuthbert 2, Williams; Conversions Halfpenny 3; Penalties Halfpenny 5. Racing Métro : Tries Matavesi, Bobo; Conversion Descons; Penalties Wisniewski 2, Descons 2, Steyn 2.
Cardiff Blues: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, C Laulala, G Evans,
C Czekaj (T James 67); D Parks, L Williams (R Rees 53); G Jenkins (J Yapp 34), R Tyrell, S Andrews (S Hobbs h-t), B Davies, P Tito (capt, M Molitika 70), M Paterson, S Warburton, X Rush.
Racing Métro: J Matavesi; H Chavancy, F Steyn, F Estebanez,
S Bobo; J Wisniewski (J Imhoff 24), S Descons; M Tu'ugahala
(E Arous 45), B Noirot (G Arganese 54), B Sa (J Orlandi 54),
K Ghezal, F Van der Merwe (J Naliko 49), J Leo'o (R Vaquin 70),
A Battut, S Chabal (J Cronje 51).
Referee: A Small (England).
Quarter-finals: Munster v Ulster
Leinster v Cardiff Blues
Edinburgh v Toulouse
Saracens v Clermont Auvergne
(ties to be played 6/7/8 April)
Semi-finals: Saracens or Clermont v Leinster or Cardiff Blues
Munster or Ulster v Edinburgh or Toulouse
(ties to be played 27/28/29 April)