Woe, woe, and a thousand woes. When the Blue and Blacks least needed it, they slipped to their heaviest defeat (albeit one of 10 points) of the season as Newport retained an unbeaten record in Premiership local derbies now stretching to four seasons and eight matches.
As the match programme noted beforehand, this is getting beyond a joke but there were few chuckles among the home contingent in the best Arms Park crowd of the campaign. Coach Justin Burnell has rightly concluded that the season so far has been one of ‘continuous progression’ but this was definitely a blip on the upward curve of the graph. His post-match analysis centred on an interesting observation: “Too many of the team were living off their great performance and cup victory at Neath and we paid the price.” If this indeed was the case then the 2007 Model Blue and Blacks might reflect on the achievements of yesteryear by the former players of Cardiff - and, for that matter, Newport - who were watching from the stand.
Gareth Gravell’s team were found wanting in pace and cutting edge, a not unfamiliar failing, but, more surprisingly, a solid platform up front. The pack have consistently been the unsung heroes of the season but this time out were stopped in their tracks. The streetwise men of Gwent have ‘done a job’ on the Cardiff lineout before, and here it was in all its ugly glory again. Allied to that was a clear second-best in the contact areas as the Black and Ambers gouged themselves on a feast of turnover ball throughout what became a frustrating second half.
The back row of Lucas, Powell and Gravell has many merits, and has proved so on many occasions in recent weeks, but, for once, its lack of pace when a game opens up proved too much of a shortcoming. No one could be faulted for lack of effort but skill levels deteriorated the longer the game went on.
Without in any way blaming him for the result, the approach of referee Nigel Owens also left something to be desired. Seemingly setting out to ‘do a Norling’ by playing advantage for both sides to the limit, his style backfired rather spectacularly in the second half. With midfield offsides tolerated and unforced errors proliferating, the game lost all shape. Cardiff, so good at offloading in tight situations against Neath, were now propelling Barnes Wallis-type balls around the pitch so often that there was a case for playing the Dam Busters theme at one stage.
After leading 14-12 at the break, the Blue & Blacks’ dam was breached too often in the second period. They had done well to come back from being seven points down in as many minutes after a Daniel Griffiths’ converted try. Chris Stamatakis, largely subdued in this game, scored a good try on the left after an overlap had been created via several phases, and a penalty try was correctly awarded by Owens after a collapsed maul. Chris Anderson converted both but it says something for the ebb and flow of the game that he didn’t attempt one penalty goal during the afternoon.
With the last move of the half a Newport catch and drive was repelled only for possession to be retained and eventually hooker Andrew Brown crossed in the corner. Worryingly, Cardiff had failed to take advantage of the sin-binning of the influential lock Mark Workman after the penalty try. Newport were far more clinical in the second half. Griffiths kicked a penalty goal to regain a lead his side never lost. From then he had an armchair ride and gave his opponents an object lesson in tactical kicking. At least four pinpoint efforts drove the Blue & Blacks back deep into their own 22. Cardiff’s solitary bright light in an otherwise abject kicking display was a first half howitzer by Jamie Roberts that gained all of 70 metres.
It was only a matter of time before Newport cashed in on their territorial and possession dominance. The tries duly arrived in the 55th and 65th minutes. Scott Williams scored the first from another overlap and Ryan Howells came in off the open side wing to cut a swathe through a porous midfield defence for the second, with Griffiths twice adding the extras.
Deep in injury time, Darren Allinson - a ray of hope as a 48th minute replacement - and Gravell manufactured a move off the back of a scrum on halfway, Chris Jones provided the crucial link, and the ever willing Jamie Roberts crossed near the corner. It was a strong finish that in no way reflected much of what had gone before.
Ironically, Cardiff remain in the top six of the table after Aberavon lost heavily (9-35) at home to a Glamorgan Wanderers line-up featuring Tom Isaacs at scrum-half, Dafydd Hewitt at centre and Cardiff Blues flanker Robin Sowden-Taylor, all of whom have made significant contributions to Cardiff’s cause over recent years (and weeks). Food for thought.