A little over 48 minutes into one of European rugby’s “Looney Tunes” productions – a game in which a team boasting 13 full internationals and five Test Lions were being comprehensively marmalised by opponents nowhere near as blessed on either count – the French referee Jérôme Garces found himself in the middle of some loose-ball chaos and was duly dumped on his posterior. It was just about the first time the visitors had completed a tackle, such was the inadequacy of their defensive performance… and even then they nailed the wrong bloke.
At this point, the Blues were 36-3 down, having conceded five first-half tries to an Exeter side who operated with width, tempo and a clear sense of direction but were still some way short of playing the rugby of the gods. Or to put it another way, they were armed with Dave Ewers, Dave Lewis, Gareth Steenson and Fetu’u Vainikolo – not Mervyn Davies, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and JJ Williams.
Not long afterwards, they were another five points to the bad, having waved Steenson through on the dummy and seen Ian Whitten complete the kind of try that would have tempted the coach of Old Rubbishonians Extra 4ths to hang himself from one of the crossbars. “We were,” admitted the Blues boss Phil Davies, “disappointed with what happened before the interval.” Disappointed? “Maybe I’m understating it a little,” he conceded on reflection.
If Davies had his critics in Wales before kick-off, there were a whole lot more of them on his case by the mid-point of the contest. The Blues would have had to go some to plumb the lowest depths of their Heineken Cup experience – a decade ago, they shipped 75 points and leaked 13 tries in Biarritz – but when Whitten ambled over without a care in the world, they seemed ready to give it their best shot. By all accounts, the response on social media was profoundly anti-social.
Yet by some strange twist of fate, the Welshmen spent the last half-hour of a horrible afternoon salvaging a collective reputation that had descended to somewhere near the earth’s core. They scored four tries of their own, thereby securing a bonus point that may count for something come the end of the pool phase, and almost put themselves in a position to win the game – or, at the very least, take a second bonus back across the bridge.
Exeter, who had looked a million dollars in the opening stanza largely because the Blues were barely worth a groat, conceded soft tries to Lloyd Williams and Robin Copeland, both from poorly controlled rucks, and then contrived to commit two yellow-card offences in the space of 60 seconds. Whitten was the first to take up residence in the cooler after knocking-on deliberately, and he was quickly joined by Sireli Naqelevuki, who hit Harry Robinson hard and high. During their absence, the outstanding Lions wing Alex Cuthbert and a recuperating Robinson crossed for tries that closed the deficit to a mere dozen points.
Cue panic stations. One loose Exeter kick towards Cuthbert, who ran himself stupid in the most determined of attempts to salvage something of value from the debris, might have turned the game entirely on its head, but things did not quite fall for him. The final score fell to the Devonians instead: a 76th-minute penalty from the substitute outside-half Henry Slade. It says a good deal for the weirdness of the occasion that a side who had led 41-3 were relieved to knock over a kick with four minutes left on the clock.
So what the hell happened in that first half? Davies, suitably bemused, answered the question with a challenge of the “you tell me” variety. It didn’t wash with the travelling interrogators, who continued to track their prey like hunting dogs, peppering him with questions about his future – by which they meant the lack of it. The rugby director stood firm. “Pointing fingers is no good,” he said, finally. “Everything comes back to me, but we’re all in this together. I’m not the one out on the field.”
Which was true enough. It was equally true that Davies’ interval address hit the spot – and yes, it was he who did most of the talking, rather than the captain Matthew Rees or the Lions leader Sam Warburton or the hero of last summer’s long-awaited triumph in Wallaby land, Leigh Halfpenny. But he will have to be more inspirational still when the European champions Toulon visit the Arms Park this weekend if the worst of his side’s rugby here is to be forgotten by those unfortunate enough to witness it.
Injury problems had left the Blues light in midfield and Exeter took full advantage, largely through the strong-running Vainikolo and the centre Jason Shoemark, whose strong-pulling in midfield was worthy of a master puppeteer. The visitors also found the best of the home forwards, the fast-developing No 8 Ewers, too hot to handle.
But as Davies would readily acknowledge, tackling of the optional variety is the worst option of all. It was hard to believe that such luminaries as Rees, Warburton, Gethin Jenkins and Bradley Davies had ever been involved in a more limp-wristed, half-baked, wholly inadequate half of rugby in their careers.
Rob Baxter, the Exeter rugby director, said afterwards that in terms of “tempo, attitude, strength of carry and speed of thought in support, that was as good as anything I’ve seen us produce”. He should know. But being the hard-headed union man he is, he must also be aware that when his team meet Glasgow at Scotstoun in six days’ time, they will not find themselves facing such enthusiastic adherents to the free gift philosophy of rugby.
Not that he would consider swapping places with Davies right now. There are any number of issues that need tackling in the Welsh regional game, politically and economically as well as competitively. Where to begin? The odd tackle on the field might be as good a starting point as any.
Scorers: Exeter – Tries: Johnson, Mumm, Jess, Vainikolo, White, Whitten. Conversions: Steenson 4.Penalties: Steenson, Slade. Cardiff Blues – Tries: Williams, Copeland, Cuthbert, Robinson. Conversions: Halfpenny 3. Penalty: Halfpenny.
Exeter: P Dollman; M Jess, I Whitten, J Shoemark (S Naqelevuki 57), F Vainikolo; G Steenson (H Slade 55), D Lewis (H Thomas 47); B Sturgess, C Whitehead (J Yeandle 48), H Tui (C Rimmer 51-72), D Mumm (capt), D Welch (D Armand 62), T Johnson (K Horstmann 33), B White, D Ewers.
Cardiff Blues: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, C Allen, D Hewitt, H Robinson (R Smith 76); R Patchell (G Davies 75), L Williams (L Jones 75); G Jenkins (S Hobbs 73), M Rees (capt, M Breeze 76), T Filise (S Andrews 51), B Davies, F Paulo (L Reed 51), J Navidi, S Warburton, A Pretorious (R Copeland 51).
Referee: J Garces (France).