Battling Blues cover themselves in glory
Graham Jenkins at the Stade Velodrome
May 23, 2010
Jamie Roberts got the Blues on the road to recovery © Getty Images
Dove with Green Peas by Pablo Picasso (1911)
To this list of treasures stolen from under the noses of the French this week we can now add:
European Challenge Cup by Cardiff Blues (2010)
The drought has been broken at last. On a scorching day in Marseille, an outstanding display from the Blues saw them become the first Welsh side to clinch a European club title - and how they deserved it.
The Challenge Cup might not be the big one but that will not matter a jot to Dai Young's heroic charges and the few hundred fans who ventured here to the Stade Velodrome. Together they silenced the best part of 50,000 home fans and ended the hopes of the big spenders of Toulon. Much of the talk before the game may have been of the star-studded squad assembled at Toulon thanks to the chequebook of Mourad Boudjellal but the Blues can boast a few gems of their own in the likes of powerhouse centre Jamie Roberts, maruding No.8 Xavier Rush and the assured boot of fullback Ben Blair.
This was a huge win no matter how you look at it - built upon a fierce never-say-die attitude. The odds were stacked against the Blues with this clash taking place in the 'neutral' venue just 30 miles from Toulon's own Stade Felix Mayol stadium and one which they call home for all their big games. The result will not only put the region back on course in its quest to join Europe's elite but also go some way to erasing the memories of their painful exit from last year's Heineken Cup in a penalty shoot-out.
It is also a fitting reward for a side that, since the New Year, has endeavoured to rescue a season that looked like falling flat. They saved their best for their European campaign with this latest stand-out result following equally impressive wins on the road against Newcastle and Wasps. What was billed as "the biggest game in the region's history" ended with what must surely be their biggest win? And as the only side to have beaten Heineken Cup winners Toulouse in Europe this season they can boast a notable double.
But for so long it looked like it might not go their way, with Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson delivering a vintage display that was cruelly ended by injury early in the second half - the England man crumpling to the ground after missing a penalty. Toulon coach Philippe Saint-Andre may be loth to admit it but his side's hopes were dealt a fatal blow with his departure.
Suddenly Toulon, who had been brimming with adventure, were shorn of ideas and direction. Wilkinson had been in imperious form, directing proceedings, delivering the kind of bone-crunching tackles of his early international career, kicking points and showing a gainline-breaking step that has long been missing from his game. But there was to be no early birthday present for the England No.10 who turns 31 in a couple of days - perhaps it is England manager Martin Johnson who will be the one receiving a gift in the form of a rejuvenated, if not injured, Wilkinson.
He was ably supported by centre Sonny Bill Williams who, perhaps spurred on by the advances of the All Blacks, appeared destined to use this high-profile stage to underline his own class. Fizzing with intent he sent shockwaves through the Blues with a thunderous tackle on Ma'ama Molitika and did so again for his side's first try. In the blink of an eye he displayed a devastating mix of power, pace and finesse to exploit a gap and dance his way over for a try before throwing the ball into the crowd as if skimming a stone into the Med. Like that other crowd pleaser Sebastian Chabal, Williams has the ability to make the ball in a solitary hand look like one of the RWC'07 stress toys that you can still buy at the Stade de France.
However, stripped of Wilkinson, Williams was unable to wreak as much damage despite the best efforts of the likes of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Joe van Niekerk in support. In contrast, the Blues not only withstood the loss of captain and talisman Gethin Jenkins to injury at half-time but took strength from the setback and turned the game on its head.
Trailing by a converted score at the start of the second half, the Blues rallied with three well-worked tries that quite literally knocked the stuffing out of a tiring Toulon perhaps still feeling the effects of their epic Top 14 semi-final exit last weekend. The Blues raised their efforts and with it the pace of the game to devastating effect. There was no stopping the rampaging Roberts who capped a fine performance with the first score that saw him emerge from Williams' shadow.
Not content with just being back in the contest the Blues pushed on looking for the killer score and the blistering pace of winger Leigh Halfpenny provided just that after the Toulon defence had once again been stretched first this way and then that. But they were not done there. Lock Bradley Davies, who has suffered more than most this past year, delighted in powering over for the third try. Toulon refused to capitulate in front of an expectant 'home' crowd and after battering on the Blues' door for what seemed like an age they were eventually rewarded with a try from replacement Thomas Sourice - but it was too little, too late.
This season was a huge step forward for Toulon but they end it empty-handed and still some way from the elite status that they are striving for. There is work to be done and the chequebook will no doubt be out again this summer but in Wilkinson they have the rock on which to build. The Blues also face a similar predicament but there is nothing like success and reward to inspire yet more days like this.
Finals are often where heroes are found and the Blues boasted many in their ranks on what was a truly glorious day in Marseille where they crafted their very own masterpiece.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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