Blues set up Toulon showdown
May 1, 2010
Cardiff Blues' Xavier Rush and Wasp' Mark van Gisbergen compete for a high ball
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Cardiff Blues booked their place in this season's European Challenge Cup Final with a battling 18-15 victory over London Wasps at Adams Park.
Tries from winger Leigh Halfpenny and prop Gethin Jenkins, the boot of fullback Ben Blair and a man of the match performance from No.8 Xavier Rush carried the region into their first European final with French side Toulon, conquerors of Connacht in Friday night's other semi-final, awaiting them at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on May 23. Fly-half Dave Walder kicked Wasps into a narrow half-time lead but the sin-binning of veteran lock Simon Shaw proved the turning point in what was departing duo Danny Cipriani and Paul Sackey's final home game for the club.
A torrential downpour in the lead up to the game ensured the teams were greeted by atrocious playing conditions when they took to the field and the rain continued to fall as referee Romain Poite signalled the start of the game. The elements were soon playing a significant part in proceedings with a rampaging run from Rush causing havoc before the slippery ball escaped him. Wasps fullback Mark van Gisbergen failed to deal with the danger and Blues fullback Blair swooped in and claimed a try but play was called back for a knock on. The decision looked harsh on the visitors on second viewing but the referee opted against going to the Television Match Official. The Blues continued to press and a penalty offered Blair the chance to open the scores but he pushed his effort wide of the posts.
Some aimless kicking form both sides was then given some direction with the sodden pitch adding some zip to an effort from Blair with the resulting touch giving the visitors great field position. But an early engagement at the scrum conceded possession and territory back to Wasps. A great kick and chase from Sackey then led to a penalty against the Blues f and Walder's well-struck kick gave the home side the lead. Shaw was penalised for a high tackle just a minute later and received some harsh words from the referee before Blair missed the chance to level the scores.
The Wasps defence continued to frustrate the Blues but they were eventually rewarded for the attacking endeavour with the opening try of the game from Halfpenny. As he did for most of the game, Rush led the charge before the ball was worked wide to the Halfpenny courtesy of some slick handling and the Welsh international powered through the tackles of Van Gisbergen and prop Tim Payne before touching down for the score. But Blair's kicking woes continued with the conversion missing its target.
The Wasps pack led the hosts' riposte with a big hit at the next scrum and they earned a penalty that Walder slotted superbly to make it a one-point game. Poite's arm was soon out again with the Wasps pack inflicting more psychological damage at scrum time and Walder gave his side the lead with his third penalty. Blair finally found his range a minute before the break to bring his side to within a point as the sides headed to the tunnel.
The Wasps pack continued to get the better of the Blues at scrum time after the break and Walder wasted no time in extending his side's lead with another clean strike just a minute into the second half. But back came the Blues only to be thwarted again by the Wasps defence with skipper Tom Rees leading by example.
The Blues' frustration threatened to get the better of them before a classic counter punch from Blair brought his side back to within a point. And the task facing the visitors was made a little easier moments later when the referee ran out of patience with Shaw and showed the second row the yellow card for repeated infringements at the breakdown. Halfpenny's attempt at the long range penalty was wide of the mark but the momentum was now with the Welsh side who raised their efforts in a bid to take control of the game. And they did just that with Jenkins burrowing over from close range for his side's second try that was converted by Blair. But the Blues' discipline let them down just two minutes later allowing Walder to close the gap with his fifth penalty.
Shaw returned without any further damage to the scoreboard and it was soon the Blues who were down to 14-men with replacement Scott Andrews penalised as the Wasps pack looked to turn the screw at scrum time. Andrews exit coincided with the introduction of Cipriani who entered the fray as a replacement for Van Gisbergen.
With clock ticking down the Blues' John Yapp was caught offside at the breakdown and Walder stepped up to try and level the scores and at least force extra time but his first bad connection of the night meant his effort fell wide of the posts. Wasps looked to build again with time running out but a huge tackle from fly-half Ceri Sweeney forced a priceless turnover and the Blues calmly ran the clock down to clinch the win and a final date with Toulon.
Cardiff Blues boss Dai Young admitted the influential Rush will be almost impossible to replace after he delivered another match-winning display for the region. "Xavier was outstanding," said Young. "He got us on the front foot, which was always going to be the most important thing on a day like this. Whichever team got going forward would control the game and Xavier did that for us today. He will be very difficult to replace.
"Obviously we would have preferred a dry track because we have got the players to move the ball - but to win any comp you have to have a B-game as well as your A-game. The players deserve all the credit they get. It was never going to be pretty in these conditions but we showed great maturity. It could have gone either way at the end but I think we played most of the rugby."
Wasps boss Tony Hanks was left to rue Shaw's costly sin-binning. "We are not going to enjoy watching the final. The yellow card hurt us," said Hanks. "Simon has been important to us in defending the driving lineouts and you don't just fill the void of Simon Shaw for 10 minutes. They took their opportunities and we did not make enough of ours."
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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