No win since New Year’s Day. No director of rugby after Phil Davies quit. Embarrassing defeats to Zebre and the Ospreys. It has certainly been a difficult year to be a Cardiff Blues fan, but the return of club captain Matthew Rees after a spell out fighting testicular cancer inspired their second best win of the season against high-flying Ulster. Cardiff and Wales legend Martyn Williams, other pundits, supporters and the media were damning of the attitude of the Blues after their dismal derby day defeat in Swansea last week which led to a name and shame session as former Pontypridd duo Dale McIntosh and Paul John threw the riot act at their players for not doing the jersey justice. Saturday’s 28-23 win over Ulster was unexpected – the Irish province have been imperious this year and could have moved second with a win in Cardiff, while the Blues still languish in 10th place and favourites to finish lowest of the four Welsh regions this season. The disappointments this season have been too many both on and off the pitch with key players Leigh Halfpenny, Bradley Davies and Robin Copeland announcing they are moving on in the summer while there has been a revolving door to the treatment room, but not even an unexpected but welcome win over Ulster could trump the return of Smiler for the final 22 minutes. It’s hard to think he only joined the region last summer, but the Grand Slam-winning hooker has become a focal point in recent months with the club rallying behind him and his return is undoubtedly their biggest win of the season.
Ulster’s defeat saw their play-off hopes take an unexpected hit. With Leinster favourites to pick up a win against rivals Munster at the Aviva Stadium, Ulster could have moved second in the Pro12, but with only a losing bonus point they fall eight points behind Leinster and three behind Munster. The biggest disappointment will come from the gap to the chasing pack. Ospreys remain eight points behind with both clubs having four games remaining, but fifth-place Glasgow Warriors are nine points behind with two games in hand and Mark Anscombe’s side travel to Glasgow and face Leinster and Munster in their final two games of the season. The Ospreys saw their hopes of finishing in the top four take a hit yesterday in Glasgow and they face Leinster in two weeks’ time, which may be a step too far, but Steve Tandy’s side have an affinity with upsetting the odds when it comes to the business end of the season and will be confident of picking up points in the final three games which could take the play-off race down to the final weekend if Ulster can’t get back to winning ways in the league.
Make no mistake about it, a famous win over Ulster will not turn the tables for the Blues. The result and the occasion may have been something, but there was a lot left on the field: missed tackles, passes not finding their target and a drop in focus at times. His break for Robin Copeland’s try aside, Wales wing Alex Cuthbert continued to look out of sorts. There’s no denying his attacking prowess and deadly finishing, but his defence game needs some work. Something has gone wrong somewhere and it needs to be resolved for the start of the new season otherwise he remains a liability. The big problem for the Blues without a director of rugby is replacing the big names leaving in the summer to produce a squad to get fans into the Arms Park. The atmosphere against Ulster was electric, particularly in the closing stages as the Cardiff faithful roared their side on to hold out against the waves of Ulster attack, but the stadium is far from being a fortress like Ulster’s Ravenhill, and the performances in the last two seasons far from gratifying. For a region which is supposed to represent the ambitious city of Cardiff and the passionate rugby heartlands in the Valleys, it’s just not good enough. Currently holding the fort in temporary charge when Davies resigned after the Zebre defeat, the Chief and John have the coaching philosophies and no-nonsense attitude which should be able to transform the Blues from Pro12 whipping boys to top six contenders, but it will take time and they should be allowed to continue next season and build a squad capable of competing. Perhaps they could do with someone to take care of the management aspects, but the Blues would do better to keep them and spend the money on players than splash out on a big-name coach with ideas they can’t afford.
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