Blues number 8 Robin Copeland and Ulster centre Darren Cave scored the only tries in the match as accurate kicks at goal dominated the scoring in a thrilling encounter in the Welsh capital as Ulster lost their first match of 2014.
But on an emotional day at Cardiff Arms Park club captain Matthew Rees was the real hero as he came off the bench in the Blues’ final home match of the season to make his first appearance since being diagnosed with, and receiving the all-clear from, testicular cancer.
After a woeful effort in the South Wales derby a week earlier, the Blues began the match lively as they attacked the gain line, but their success was short-lived as a clearance to touch found Ulster full-back Jared Payne who was allowed to run it back.
When Nick Williams was sent over the gain line, Blues full-back Dan Fish was unable to prevent Cave from breaking through as he ran in for an easy try after four minutes. Outside-half Paddy Jackson missed with the conversion—the only miss of the night.
Both sides were happy to run the ball on the Arms Park’s artificial pitch, but Ulster will be disappointed at their inability to find the final pass to extend their lead.
Indiscipline from the Pro12’s third-place side allowed the Blues back into the match with them happy to throw the ball to their London Welsh-bound outside-half Davies who produced a kicking display reminiscent of injured full-back Leigh Halfpenny.
He kicked two in succession to edge the Blues to a 6-5 lead before lock Dan Tuohy was sin-binned with 10 minutes of the first half remaining for repeated infringements.
With the visitors down to 14 men, the hosts upped their game and Davies added a further two penalties, the second coming from a devastating 40-metre driving maul into the Ulster 22 which would have pleased forwards coach Dale McIntosh, even if they botched the breakaway for what should have been a certain try.
The Blues’ only try of the match arrived five minutes from the break through Munster-bound Ireland hopeful Copeland as he started and finished a superb move with Wales wing Alex Cuthbert breaking down the left before cutting inside and playing a reverse pass to the number eight to run it in.
Davies added the conversion and added his fifth penalty with two minutes to go to stretch the lead to 22-5.
Ulster came back with a bang in the second half and began to make inroads into the deficit as Jackson slotted penalties on 43 and 47 minutes and their intensity increased and almost resulted in a try as Luke Marshall went over the line, but the TMO ruled Marshall was held up short with arms and legs everywhere, but Jackson added another penalty to keep the pressure on the Blues in the final quarter.
The visitors looked the more dangerous side going forward with Williams as menacing as ever and a solid ball-carrying option, but accuracy thwarted many attacks and allowed the Blues to remain in the match.
The biggest cheer of the night came when Rees took to the field for the final 20 minutes and the Wales hooker played his part in a monumental defensive effort to keep Ulster at bay.
Davies and Jackson continued to trade kicks and the Ulsterman’s fifth and sixth successful kicks on 72 and 75 minutes set up a tense finale with the score at 25-23 as the Blues were camped in their own half, but Davies kept his nerve to stretch the lead to five points with less than 90 seconds left on the clock.
With one last chance to steal a win with the clock red, Ulster threw everything at the Blues, but they survived a score of phases in their 22 for almost four minutes into extra time at the end of the match for arguably their best win of the season.
Cardiff Blues: Dan Fish; Alex Cuthbert, Cory Allen, Isaia Tuifua, Chris Czekaj; Gareth Davies, Lewis Jones; Gethin Jenkins (captain), Kristian Dacey, Taufa’ao Filise, Lou Reed, Filo Paulo, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Matthew Rees (for Dacey, 58), Thomas Davies, Scott Andrews, James Down (for Reed, 70), Ellis Jenkins (for Cook, 75); Lloyd Williams (for L Jones, 72), Simon Humberstone, Gavin Evans.
Cons: G Davies (1/1)
Pens: G Davies (7/7)
Ulster: Jared Payne; Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Andrew Trimble; Paddy Jackson, Michael Heaney; Tom Court, Rob Herring, John Afoa; Johann Muller (captain), Dan Tuohy; Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Niall Annett (for Herring, 69), Andrew Warwick (for Court, 67), Ricky Lutton, Iain Henderson (for Muller, 57), Robbie Diack (for Ferris, 41), Sean Doyle (for Tuohy, 75); Paul Marshall (for Heaney, 57), Craig Gilroy.
Cons: Jackson (0/1)
Pens: Jackson (6/6)
Yellow card: Tuohy (30)
Man of the Match: Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues)
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR)
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly