Rush of blood to the head ends Cardiff's dream of Cup glory

Cardiff Blues 19 Northampton 23
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If the weather was as cold as charity – Captain Oates himself might have stayed inside the tent, so low did the Welsh temperatures fall – the rugby was as hot as hell. Hotter, quite possibly. There was always a chance that this return meeting between two of the Heineken Cup's big beasts would turn fractious, thanks to the fun and games at Franklin's Gardens eight days previously, and sure enough, it went off like a firework. Xavier Rush went off too, dismissed for a dangerous tackle on the England lock Courtney Lawes, and he took his side's hopes of knockout qualification with him.

The All Black No 8 had been the centrepiece of a deeply resourceful Blues' forward effort – an effort that on any other day would have earned them a 10-point interval lead, minimum. On this particular day, frustratingly for the Welshmen, it left them no better than all square at 9-9.

Quite how the Midlanders reached the break on level terms will for ever remain a mystery, for they had very nearly been run off their feet by Tom Shanklin, Casey Laulala and a Blues back-row unit in blinding form.

"We had enough possession in the right areas to give ourselves a real chance, but didn't turn it into pressure or points nearly well enough," conceded David Young, the Cardiff coach.

So it was that Northampton began the second period with a continuing interest in the outcome, and as they biffed and bashed their way upfield behind some intelligent tactical kicking from Stephen Myler, the Welsh region's collective discipline began to crack and splinter.

First, their international lock Bradley Davies flicked out a gormless foot – always assuming a foot can be so described – as the visiting scrum-half Lee Dickson attempted to move the ball from a ruck. The penalty? A 10-minute breather without the option.

Then, seconds after Tom James had crunched Chris Ashton with a totally legitimate all-over body assault as Northampton swept down the right, Rush crossed the line into extreme illegality in doing something similar to the 6ft 7in Lawes, poleaxing him with a tackle that had more things wrong with it than the Great Train Robbery.

Jim Mallinder, the Northampton coach, was reluctant to condemn the miscreant out of hand, but he could not help commenting that "anyone who catches Courtney round the head must have gone in a little high", and adding, after due pause for thought: "He took his head off."

Even then, Mallinder's men needed a very late try of the distinctly dodgy variety to maximise their numerical advantage. Three minutes before the end of normal time, the brick-outhouse centre James Downey ploughed into the Blues' 22 to set up a prime attacking position of the sort that had until then eluded the visitors throughout the contest. Tom Wood butchered an overlap going right by stepping into contact, but the siege was laid nonetheless, with both Calum Clark and Dylan Hartley driving to within millimetres of the line. The referee, Jérôme Garces, looked long and hard before going "upstairs" to the television match official and, after a long delay, awarding the winning try to Clark.

"There were a fair few talking points down in the tunnel," said Young, with classic understatement. "The red card: harsh or fair? The try: was it or wasn't it? I'm not going to sit here and accuse people of getting it all wrong. The referee made his decisions, and that's all there is to it." Which is not to say that the former Lions prop will not re-run the DVD a thousand times over the coming days and probably throw an entire canteen of crockery at the wall while watching it.

Young admitted yesterday's result marked the end of the Heineken Cup road for his side – which is a crushing disappointment, given the Blues' high expectations before this season's European campaign. And in fairness, they probably deserved better.

Right from the start, their scrummaging was exposed by a Northampton front row who had lorded it over them in the first game, but the Cardiff forwards were far more combative around the tackle area, as well as being significantly more potent than last time on the footballing front. Martyn Williams showed some vintage touches in the breakaway position while Mama Molitika took what was coming from the visiting back-rowers at close quarters and returned it with interest. As for Rush... he was exceptional.

Early in the second half, they broke the Northampton barricades when Jamie Roberts, feeling his way back into big-time rugby after a long injury break, clattered his way into the 22 and set up the position from which Richard Mustoe managed to squirm out of Lawes' tackle to score.

Dan Parks' conversion gave the home side a seven-point lead, and for all the world it looked as though the Pool One argument would be complicated by a Blues victory. Unfortunately for them, the cards changed everything.

"Suddenly, we had to put a back into the set piece, which compromised our kick-chase," Young said."It meant Parks was kicking in hope off the back foot rather than kicking with real purpose off the front foot, as he had in the first half. That brought Ben Foden into the game, and it hurt us."

Foden, the England full-back, looked a million dollars from the moment the Blues went down to 13 – Rush having committed his transgression while Davies was serving his penance.

Time and again, Foden set sail from his own half and beat men for fun in racing upfield, and with the predatory Ashton tracking him, the contest shifted decisively on its axis. Indeed, it was Foden who set in train the events that led to Clark's disputed touchdown.

"That's the most pressure we've been under all season," admitted Mallinder, who has tasted defeat only once thus far. "That we came through it speaks volumes. It was confrontational, it was intimidatory. But that's the Heineken Cup, isn't it?" Unlike Young, he could still speak of it in the present tense.

Cardiff Blues: Try Mustoe; Conversion Parks; Penalties Parks 3; Drop goal Parks. Northampton: Try Clark; Penalties Myler 6.

Cardiff Blues C Czekaj (C Sweeney, 45-57); R Mustoe, C Laulala, T Shanklin (J Roberts, h-t), T James; D Parks, R Rees; G Jenkins, G Williams (R Williams, 63), T Filise (J Yapp, 72), B Davies, P Tito (capt, M Paterson, 63), M Molitika, M Williams (S Warburton, 63), X Rush.

Northampton B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, R Powell (L Dickson, 47); S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), B Mujati, C Lawes (C Clark, 67), C Day (M Sorenson 84), P Dowson, T Wood, R Wilson.

Referee J Garces (France).