Blues scrape into last eight
January 22, 2012
Leigh Halfpenny breaks to set up a try for Alex Cuthbert
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Cardiff Blues scraped into the last eight of the Heineken Cup with a 36-30 victory over Racing Metro on Sunday.
The Blues will meet reigning champions Leinster in the quarter-finals, having missed out on home advantage due to Edinburgh's bonus-point win over London Irish. The Scottish side top Pool 2 and will face Toulouse.
Wales coach Warren Gatland was dealt another major pre-Six Nations injury scare, with prop Gethin Jenkins taken off six minutes before half-time at Cardiff City Stadium nursing what appeared to be a knee problem.
Gatland has already lost Jenkins' fellow forwards Luke Charteris, Alun-Wyn Jones and Lloyd Burns from the tournament - Wales' opening game against Ireland is just a fortnight away - while fly-half Rhys Priestland and flanker Dan Lydiate both suffered injuries during Saturday's action.
Despite Jenkins' early exit, the Blues secured a last-eight berth thanks to wing Alex Cuthbert's brace, a Lloyd Williams touchdown and 21 points from fullback Leigh Halfpenny, including five penalties.
Racing pushed them all the way, scoring tries through their former Exeter fullback Josh Matavesi and wing Sireli Bobo, with fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski kicking two penalties, centre Francois Steyn two and scrum-half Sebastien Descons a conversion and two penalties.
Neither side went more than six points ahead at any time in the contest - a statistic that did little to calm nerves among an 8,000 crowd - and Cardiff ultimately failed to keep group challengers Edinburgh at bay.
The Blues were without star centres Jamie Roberts and Gavin Henson, as Roberts continued his recovery from a knee injury, and Gavin Evans partnered Casey Laulala in midfield after being preferred to Henson. A stomach bug meant hooker Rhys Thomas was a late withdrawal, the former Wales international being replaced by Ryan Tyrell, with Paris-based Racing including several international stars despite having already been eliminated from quarter-final contention.
Racing struck first when Wisniewski landed a long-range penalty, but the Blues responded immediately thanks to a defensive blunder by South African World Cup winner Steyn.
The centre took far too long trying to clear the ball from inside his 22, and Williams charged it down before gathering a kind bounce and touching down. Halfpenny converted, only for Wisniewski to kick his second penalty, this time from just 25 metres out, then Halfpenny continued an early scoring burst with a penalty that made it 10-6.
Any thoughts that Racing had arrived in Wales merely to make up the numbers were dispelled midway through a lively opening period as Cardiff fell behind. The visitors, eager to move possession wide at every opportunity, sliced through the Blues' defence after Bobo's one-handed pass created space, and Descons sent Matavesi over.
Halfpenny's second successful penalty cut the gap to a point, but Racing were good value for their advantage until they gifted their opponents a second try through more sloppy defensive work.
Halfpenny ghosted past Steyn, then Racing centre Fabrice Estebanez missed an easy tackle on Cuthbert, who touched down despite not being called back by referee Andrew Small for a knock-on. It was ultimately a fortuitous score for the Blues, but Halfpenny rubbed salt into Racing's wounds by kicking the touchline conversion attempt that opened up a 20-14 lead.
Just when the Blues needed to close things up, they suffered a double blow when Bobo rounded off an impressive move for Racing's second try - converted by Descons - before a forlorn-looking Jenkins limped off. The penalty-fest continued as Halfpenny and Steyn swapped kicks, ending a first 40 minutes that saw the lead change hands six times and Racing pinching a 24-23 lead.
The Blues took less than two minutes to go back in front, prospering when Juan Imhoff was guilty of defensive hesitancy, and Cuthbert gathered before sprinting over in the corner. Halfpenny's conversion took the Blues up to 30 points, and it was a lead they managed to retain, even though their performance level looked well short of what will be required to challenge Leinster in early April. Halfpenny, who missed only one kick from nine attempts, sealed the deal with a late strike.
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