Superb Blues seal maiden title
May 23, 2010
Jonny Wilkinson was forced from the field early in the second half
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Cardiff Blues defied the odds to secure their maiden European title by defeating Toulon 28-21 in the European Challenge Cup Final at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille on Sunday.
The Blues became the first Welsh side to lift a European trophy but were forced to produce a towering second-half performance against a star-studded Toulon side roared on by a partisan crowd of almost 49,000. The result also secures the Scarlets' place in next season's Heineken Cup, ensuring that all four Welsh regions will sit at the top table.
Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Bradley Davies scored second half tries for the Blues in response to a first half effort from Toulon's superb centre Sonny Bill Williams, whose score was supplemented by eight points from Jonny Wilkinson. An injury to the England fly-half early in the second period proved to be the game's pivotal moment, with the Blues taking control in his absence.
Several of Toulon's leading lights, including the rash Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, lost their way after Wilkinson's departure and some poor decision making allied to profligacy in attack proved to be their undoing. Replacement Thomas Sourice scored a late try to set heart-rates soaring on the Cardiff bench, but the Blues were able to cling on.
Toulon were inches away from scoring the first try of the game from kick-off, with Cardiff failing to collect the bouncing ball and only being spared by a knock-on from Williams in sight of the line. The Blues showed better defence at an ensuing maul, fighting fire with fire inside their own 22 and eventually clearing their lines.
Halfpenny opened the scoring for the Blues with a massive penalty from just inside the Toulon half, rewarding several minutes of rebuilding work after their early scare. Toulon relied heavily on the boot in the opening stages but aimless efforts from their fly-half and centre Tom May stunted their progress before Wilkinson was able to land a long-range penalty.
The home side deviated from their kicking strategy to good effect soon after, Wilkinson firing a 30 yard pass across field to Lobbe, whose straightening line created havoc in the Cardiff defence only for Joe van Niekerk to knock on.
The next score went to Blair and the Blues after May had failed to roll away but the visitors were again put under pressure by the Toulon backline, scrabbling in defence to cover the wide channels as Lobbe and van Niekerk got involved in midfield. Another handling error spared the Blues and frustrated the fans but with Rhys Thomas struggling at the lineout the ball was immediately back in the hands of Toulon.
Wilkinson mixed up his arsenal of kicks with a deft knock in behind and Williams gathered acrobatically to set up another spell of pressure. Cardiff defended resolutely, with a thumping tackle from Gethin Jenkins forcing the home side back before one flick too many from Williams and Van Niekerk almost ended in disaster as Roberts intercepted.
The Toulon cover worked hard to get back and secure the ball, with Wilkinson levelling the scores soon after when a hospital pass from Casey Laulala landed Halfpenny in a world of trouble on his wing. The crowd were on their feet to celebrate the first try before the break and it was Williams who finally found reward for his endeavour.
After Van Niekerk and fullback Christian Marienval had broken from deep, denied only by a last-ditch tackle from Halfpenny, Toulon had too many numbers for a Blues defence that was stretched to breaking point. Williams collected the ball in acres of space and fixed tight-head Tau Filise to score under the posts. Wilkinson added the conversion for a 13-6 lead, which stood at the break after Halfpenny missed a long-range penalty.
The Blues suffered a blow with Jenkins failing to reappear for the second half and their fortunes got worse as another terrible lineout throw from Thomas conceded a promising attacking position following an excellent kick from Ceri Sweeney. Lobbe and Van Niekerk continued to pop up across the field while Cardiff had no answer for the pace and power of Williams. Wilkinson lined up a penalty after a try had seemed inevitable, collapsing with an injury as the ball slid wide of the posts. The England pivot was helped from the field by medics with an apparent back injury.
The midfield reshuffle saw May switch to No.10 and the former Falcon immediately made a mistake to gift Cardiff a try. A juggle under his posts while trying to clear gave the Blues a scrum five metres out and after referee Alain Rolland had awarded a free-kick, Roberts burst onto a short ball to score under the posts. Blair converted to level the scores.
May and Blair traded penalties to leave the scores level at 16-16 as the hour mark approached but the Blues snatched the impetus through Halfpenny. Patient work on the Toulon 22 sucked in defenders and Roberts and Laulala carried hard at the heart of the defence. Quick ball to Richie Rees put Xavier Rush into space and the No.8 popped a well judged pass into the arms of Halfpenny who made no mistake out wide.
Relentless pressure from the Blues forced Toulon into another mistake deep in their 22 as Sebastien Bruno knocked on, with Rush powering forward from a free kick. Laulala again proved to be a nuisance in midfield, stepping inside two tackles before Davies finished off the move with a powerful surge close to the line.
Toulon showed wonderful heart to fight back and were roared on by their colourful support. The Blues forced back wave after wave of red attackers until Gabiriele Lovobalavu found space out wide to release Sourice to the line. May's conversion slid wide and the Blues put their bodies on the line for one last time from the kick-off, winning the vital turnover in the Toulon 22 to secure a famous victory.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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