Tincu tears Welsh ambition apart

Cardiff 3 Perpignan 21
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The Independent Online

Sod's Law. Presented with a great opportunity of making a lasting impression in Europe's blue riband, the Cardiff Blues disappeared without trace. It was not supposed to be like this. After a comprehensive stuffing, complete with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, the Blues still have a mathematical chance of making the quarter-finals but you would not bet on it. Yesterday they got all their sums wrong.

When Cardiff exited the Heineken Cup at Gloucester five years ago it almost amounted to a capitulation. This shattering defeat does not quite come into that category although it was close. The Blues could be accused of many things but not trying is not one of them. They were simply outplayed by a far superior outfit.

Perpignan had beaten the Welsh club 37-14 in France in October but the received wisdom was that they do not travel well. In Wales they would be there for the taking.

In the event they travelled in style, demoralising their opponents by a goal, a try and three penalties to a penalty. Perpignan have Calvisano at home next week and by finishing top of Pool Two will have an outside chance of a home quarter-final. If the Catalans manage it they will play in front of 60,000 at the Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona.

The Blues' sights are not as high. They travel to Leeds - their game was postponed yesterday because of the weather - where they must win to stand an earthly of being one of the two best runners-up.

The Welsh regions, despite the fact that the final is in Cardiff in May, have not stood their round in the Heineken, a competition which is an acquired taste. Perpignan were beaten finalists in Dublin in 2003, which means they have some pedigree and know what is required.

Yesterday all that experience came to the fore, especially in the second half when they virtually squeezed the life out of Cardiff. Rhys Thomas is considered an exciting young hooker but he found himself against a powerhouse in Marius Tincu and this was by no means an isolated example of culture shock.

Tincu looks as if he could run with the bulls of Pamplona and beat them and not far behind him was the No 8 Scott Robertson. Needless to say, he is a New Zealander and an impressive one at that. French clubs, who are threatening to dominate the Heineken, are smart like that. Free of salary caps, they tend to fill key positions with astute overseas signings.

The Blues pack knew they were in for a tough afternoon from the opening minute, when a rolling maul went backwards. After Nick MacLeod had given Cardiff the lead with a penalty, they paid for a loose kick, which became a theme of their game. Manny Edmonds ran to the right before Tincu blitzed down the middle. The hooker gave a perfect pass to Jean-Philippe Grandclaude, who still had a lot to do. Unforgivably, Rhys Williams shadowed him to the corner but failed to prevent the touchdown.

Nicolas Laharrague struck an upright with a penalty and after a breach by Jonah Lomu, Jamie Robinson stole down the blind-side but put a foot in touch. It was the closest the Blues got to a try. Still, they trailed only 5-3 at half time, although MacLeod was short with a penalty that would have given them a lift.

The Arms Park was full and of the crowd of 11,462 there was a little Catalan pocket in a corner of a stand. In the second half they were the only voices heard as Perpignan, who play in garish red and yellow, were all over the Blues like an MCC scarf.

Laharrague knocked over three penalties as the weight and speed of the Perpignan tackling took a heavy toll. Cardiff were being throttled, none more so than the scrum-half Mike Phillips, who barely had time to breathe before he was engulfed.

To complete a particularly hellish day for Rhys Williams, the captain, he failed to kill what looked an innocuous chip from Laharrague and allowed the replacement David Marty to score a soft try.

As Philippe Boher, the Perpignan coach, said: "We put into practice on the field everything we had talked about in our preparation." Dai Young, the Cardiff coach, was also spot on when he said: "We were beaten by a better team. They stopped us from playing. We were outplayed rather than outpassioned. It's a very disappointed dressing room." The capital of Wales was not in the mood for singing either.

Cardiff: R Williams (capt); C Morgan (L Thomas, 68),J Robinson, M Stcherbina, J Lomu; N MacLeod (R Warren, 58), M Phillips; G Jenkins (J Yapp, 58), R Thomas (D Goodfield, 60), M Jones, D Jones (C Quinnell, 62), R Sidoli, A Powell (R Sowden-Taylor, 78), X Rush, M Williams.

Perpignan: M Edmonds; C Manas, G Hume, J-P Grandclaude (D Marty, 43), S Naulu (V Vaki, 65); N Laharrague, N Durand; P Freshwater (V Debaty, 78), M Tincu (M Konieck, 65), N Mas, C Gaston, N Hines (R Alvarez-Karelis, 78), G le Courvec, S Robertson, B Goutta (capt, O Tonita, 78).

Referee: T Spreadbury (England).