Cardiff put Robinson in a hard place

Cardiff Blues 11 Northampton 5
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The Independent Online

If, at the business end of the fourth and last EDF Energy Cup final in a little under three weeks, Nicky Robinson finds himself lining up a drop-goal to win Cardiff Blues their first title of any description since the Welsh Rugby Union imposed regionalisation on a deeply suspicious sporting public, the odd random thought may just intrude into his consciousness. "What the hell happens if I miss?" might be one of them, quickly followed by "what the hell happens if I score?"

The international outside-half will be leaving the Blues for Gloucester shortly after the Blues play – er – Gloucester at Twickenham, which makes his position interesting, to say the least. His coach, David Young, may come across as one of those affable, cuddly front-row forwards of yore, but as Basil Fawlty once advised Manuel in respect of the rat he thought was a hamster: "Cuddle that and you'll never play the guitar again." No, Mr Young will not be at all amused if Robinson turns out to be of more use to his future employers than to his current ones.

And then there is Dean Ryan to take into account. Could a prospective member of the Kingsholm community really countenance kicking Gloucester to defeat just prior to joining them, with the Big Bad Wolf staring darkly at him from the sideline? It is a desperate thought, too terrible to contemplate. "There's certainly an ironic side to the situation," Robinson admitted. "I just hope I play well enough to make Dean realise exactly why he's signed me." The man should be a diplomat.

Had he been watching the second of the Anglo-Welsh semi-finals at the Ricoh Stadium, which followed hard on the heels of his own thoroughly merited success in the first, Ryan would have been reassured as to the potential success of this unexpected foray into the marketplace. The Blues' achievement in doing just enough to squeeze out a victory despite being bullied and battered by the Northampton tight-head prop Euan Murray at the scrum was in no small part due to Robinson's tactical punting and organisational know-how. If his was the least eye-catching of the day's performances at No 10, it was also the best by some considerable distance.

Opposite him, the former rugby league professional Stephen Myler found the fine art of game-shaping more difficult to master, although he looked dangerous enough with ball in hand. Indeed, it was his scamper into the Cardiff 22 following a route-one blast from the ferociously committed flanker Neil Best a minute into the second half that gave Joe Ansbro, the young Northampton centre, a sight of the line. Ansbro's finish tight to the touchline bordered on the sensational, and it left the Midlanders handily placed to take the spoils. But for all their fury, they would not score again. The Blues, who were just a little cooler under pressure, were not of a mind to capitulate.

As Young pointed out, they have become increasingly difficult to beat on the big occasion. "Four or five years ago, we weren't reaching the latter stages of competitions," said the former Lion. "Why? It's no mystery. We weren't good enough. The difference now is that we have better players, and when a club attracts better players, there is a snowball effect. If anyone deserves this trip to a final at Twickenham, it's the board. I knew it would be a bumpy road when I became coach, because it was clear to me that we wouldn't have too much going for us straight away. What we needed was patience from the board, and that's what we've received. Things haven't happened as quickly as we would have liked, and we're not the finished article yet. But we're setting our standards higher now than at any point since the region came into being."

Northampton brought plenty to the party: a hard-working loose trio and an adventurous spirit in Ben Foden, as well as a dominant set-piece. It was the Welsh side who generated much of the attacking intensity, however. The assault that led to Jason Spice's try seven minutes before the interval was exceptionally direct, featuring as it did some seriously powerful specimens in Tom Shanklin, Taufa'ao Filise, Xavier Rush and Jamie Roberts, all of whom tested their opponents' defensive resolve to the limit.

After the break, there were raids of a very different nature – long-range efforts from the two wings, Leigh Halfpenny and Tom James, both of whom gave Northampton the heebie-jeebies in broken field. Had it not been for some careless finishing, allied to the uncharacteristically cock-eyed marksmanship of Ben Blair, who missed penalty shots he would have expected to convert in his sleep, they would not have found themselves scrambling for dear life in the closing stages.

It may just be that the balance of Welsh rugby power is shifting from the west to the east. The Blues have nothing like the depth of squad to be found at the Swansea-based Ospreys, let alone the rich-kid swagger, and that scrum of theirs is a major concern. ("There is a perception that this is the soft underbelly of the team, and we have to work hard to ensure it doesn't become our Achilles heel," said Young, turning a new and unnerving page in the study of human anatomy). But in finding a way through this difficult game without the services of two Test back-rowers in Martyn Williams and Andy Powell, they took another step up the hillside. It may not be long before they meet Ospreys coming down.

Scorers: Cardiff Blues: Try Spice; Penalties Blair 2. Northampton: Try Ansbro.

Cardiff Blues: B Blair; L Halfpenny, T Shanklin, J Roberts, T James; N Robinson, J Spice; G Jenkins, G Williams (R Thomas, 65), T Filise (J Yapp, 70), D Jones (B Davies, 58), P Tito (capt), M Molitika, R Sowden-Taylor, X Rush (S Morgan, 82).

Northampton: B Foden; P Diggin, J Ansbro, J Downey, B Reihana (capt); S Myler (B Everitt, 63), L Dickson (A Dickens, 72); T Smith (S Tonga'uiha, 50), D Hartley, E Murray, I Fernandez Lobbe (M Easter, 72), J Kruger, N Best, S Gray (C Lawes, 68), R Wilson.

Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).

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