In the end the road was too long. After a season in which much progress was made, the final run-in threw up too many hurdles, too many potential banana skins - and asked too many questions of a nucleus of a squad that had performed so well for the majority of the campaign.
The performance at sunlit Stradey Park was almost unrecognisable from what had warmed the hearts of the faithful during the depths of winter. Effectively, the upward curve of the graph of progress stuttered and then stopped after the home victory over champions-elect Neath on 31 March. Since then, perhaps, and despite a cup semi-final victory achieved the hard way, the eye has been taken off the ball.
A Premiership run-in littered with home losses to Bedwas and Maesteg and now the heaviest defeat of the season to Llanelli was as unforeseen as it was unpalatable. The pattern of play was the direct reverse to one of the great days in the cup at Swansea. There, a naïve Cardiff trailed 6-8 at the interval but, against the wind, ran in five tries and 33 points in the second 40; here, the Blue & Blacks were ahead 10-3 at the break only to capitulate to five tries and 34 points after the restart as the finishing post seemed to stretch further and further away from them.
Raising the spirits after cup disappointments (or even successes) is never easy. All of 26 years ago a Cardiff squad of an earlier generation followed up a cup final triumph against Bridgend with, barely a fortnight later, a record 52-nil thrashing at the hands of Pontypool. The Blue and Blacks of that era included the likes of Scott, Davies and Holmes, Norster, Lakin and Whitefoot, Phillips and Eidman. So perhaps we should not be too harsh on our modern crop.
For this final outing of 2006-07 the captaincy was handed to Craig Evans, a suitable accolade for a newcomer who, along with eleven others, has qualified for a first XV after well over 20 appearances. He led the team out at Stradey needing another 11 points to reach 300 for the season. The early signs were promising. An attempt at a 35-metre penalty goal in the second minute hit an upright; four minutes later he was more successful from inside the Llanelli 22. Cardiff were dominating the early exchanges. In the tenth minute Llanelli scrum-half Luke Marsh was yellow-carded after cynically killing the ball. Evans pumped the ball into the left corner and from there a perfect lineout peel set up the position from which Adam Powell charged over and the captain converted.
10-nil. Good stuff. But then the problems started. No further scores while their opponents were reduced to 14 men. Wrong options taken, lack of cutting edge behind. One promising exception was Leigh Halfpenny. The 18-year-old recruit was a real livewire, ostensibly out on the right wing but popping up everywhere in defence and attack. Fast feet, sharp eyes, quick brain….the omens are good for the future.
But not tonight at Stradey. In the 19th minute a collapsed scrum resulted in a penalty goal for full-back Dan Evans and the score stayed at 10-3 until half-time. After it, Cardiff’s nightmare deepened. A sign of what was to follow came inside five minutes of the restart. Number 8 Dan Godfrey backed up brilliantly to take an inside pass from the wing and a try converted from the touchline by Dan Evans. The full-back then kicked a penalty goal awarded for not releasing.
Llanelli were ahead for the first time and now had everything going for them. Rhys Gill, bloodied after a first half skirmish, departed the scene after a season in which he has been the epitome of front row guts and total effort. Alex Murphy made one rip-roaring charge up field but the move again fizzled out with no one at his elbow. Apart from Halfpenny, the only hope behind the scrum was provided by the prompting of Richard Davies - but to no avail.
Llanelli had heroes of their own, most notably Johnathan Edwards. The only thing we got right about the tearaway open-side flanker was the unusual spelling of his name. How he ever left the Arms Park two years ago remains one of the great mysteries of recent non-recruitment. Here, he was in rampaging form, exposing Cardiff’s lack of an effective link between forwards and backs. To cap it all, another one time Blue and Black, if only on nine occasions earlier this season, scored the next try. There were red faces all around as Daniel Gravell contemptuously brushed off three powder-puff tackles to race 50 metres for the touch down.
Though Dan Evans couldn’t convert that, he was in the thick of the action when he added the extras to the first of two tries by fly-half Lee Williams and then touched down and converted himself to finish with 17 points. As for Cardiff, they finished deflated and probably embarrassed. Williams’ try brace both came from schoolboy turnovers: the first when a Cardiff pass went into no-man’s land on halfway, the second when a Cardiff back ran into him only for the ball to be taken out of his grasp and the fly-half ran in for the try with his arm aloft.
But, overall, the 2006-07 season remains one in which Gareth Gravell and the squad can justifiably still hold their own heads high.