Cardiff Blues put themselves right into Heineken Cup contention with this excellent victory over the French champions, who can hardly be regarded as favourites now.
The Blues followed their narrow defeat in Paris last weekend by playing extremely well. They looked a yard faster and were more aggressive in the tackle area and in defence than Stade Franais. They tried hard to get a fourth try and a bonus point but in the end contented themselves by scoring a late drop goal that robbed their opponents of a bonus point.
Stade are a very powerful side and they used that power to get back into the game, but they lacked the creativity necessary to overcome this improving Blues team, whose performance was all the more creditable considering they were missing two key men. They were without the fly-half Nicky Robinson, and just before the game their inspirational full-back Ben Blair was declared unfit.
Their young replacements did very well. Jamie Roberts took the No 15 shirt and proved what I suspected that he is more suited to full-back than wing. Dai Flanagan also played very well at No 10, taking a clever part in the Blues' first try and slotting over his late drop goal with aplomb. He is a great prospect but he needs a little more time to acquire the authority the position needs, and I believe the Blues should invest in an experienced outside-half as soon as possible.
It was at No 10 that Stade struggled. Losing Juan Martin Hernandez was bad news, but you would have thought such an experienced international as David Skrela would have softened the blow. Skrela kicked his goals well, but the rest of his game was disastrous.
He made a big contribution to 21 of the hosts' points. After having an early kick charged down he made a bad misjudgment in the build-up to the Blues' first try. He should have drifted but allowed himself to be held up by Xavier Rush's dummy run and thus created the hole Gareth Thomas crashed through to set up Jamie Robinson. Skrela missed a tackle on Tom James as the burly youngster stormed though for the second try, and then had a kick charged down for Paul Tito to touch down the third. Hernandez would not have made those mistakes.
Tactically, the Blues had it right and their pack performed heroics against much-vaunted opposition. They did not allow Stade to impose themselves at the scrum and the amount of turnovers they gained was amazing. Rush and Tito were awesome, and in the front row Gethin Jenkins gave the France international Pieter de Villiers a torrid time. Gethin is playing his best rugby again just in time for the Six Nations.
The Blues now have their Heineken Cup destiny in their own hands. They have to play Harlequins at home and Bristol away, and on this form you couldn't doubt their chances.
If I had to decide now who are my favourites to win the tournament I would have to say Toulouse, who play Leicester in France today. Like Stade they have the power but unlike Stade they also possess the finesse to make the most of it. The bonus point they gained at Leicester last weekend could be significant. Of course, they will have to beat the Tigers, which will not be easy.
It is all still very much alive and I am sure there is great rugby yet to come before these tight qualifying pools are settled. Winning doesn't seem to be enough any more. The bonus point has taken on such a vital importance that most matches retain their interest until the very last whistle. What more can you ask for?Reuse content