Throughout the cup campaign and most of the league fixtures the attitude and ambition have been there for all to see. Now we have the achievement to go with them. The Blue and Blacks of Cardiff are in their first cup final for a decade. In April 1997 they brought down the curtain on the old National Stadium with an epic 33-26 Cup Final victory over Swansea. Two semi-final visits to the Millennium Stadium since then have been less glorious, some might say embarrassing. Now, at the third time of asking, the modern Blue and Blacks will endeavour to achieve another ‘first’.
The cup trail has been a tough one. Yet Gareth Gravell’s side has delivered away victories over Neath and Swansea and now at neutral Sardis Road (ho, ho) against a typically mean and moody Bridgend outfit. Here was effort, 110 per cent of it, and team work in abundance. The Blue and Blacks regained the lead twice and, at the end and into several minutes of added time, hung on and tackled as if their lives depended on it. Their reward comes in 13 days’ time with that date at the Millennium Stadium and a final against Llandovery.
The foundations for the defeat of Bridgend were set up front. Plaudits will understandably be gained by the magisterial Jamie Roberts at full-back, the marvellous goal-kicking of Craig Evans, and two equally effective livewire scrum-halves in Tom Isaacs and his second-half replacement Darren Allinson. But the groundwork was done by the pack. Bridgend’s very obvious game plan of eking out vital yardage from driving mauls worked for the first twenty minutes. Then their lineout ball, despite heroic leadership from player-coach Chris Stephens, dried up. But the real damage was done in the scrums where Scott Roberts was an enormous presence. The 22-year-old tight head prop proved to be the classic cornerstone for a mighty effort in the set-pieces. Outside the current national squad, there can be few better exponents in tight and loose in Wales.
Several months ago Justin Burnell identified Roberts together with Rhys Gill (20) and Ross Johnston (21 last month) as a regional unit within two seasons. Regular Blue and Black watchers would concur. But there was much to admire throughout the eight, with locks Dafydd Rosser (23) and James Down (19), supported by 24-year-old Matthew Amos, an imposing powerhouse and, as always, the back row of Gravell, Gavin Lucas and Adam Powell (another 20-year-old) refusing to take a step backwards.
Discipline was paramount and it was duly delivered. Bridgend had only three goal kicking opportunities. Matthew Jones, newly recruited from the Ospreys two months ago, succeeded with the first, for a 3-0 lead after six minutes. By the time he kicked his second early in the second half, Cardiff had established an impressive 20-10 lead. Craig Evans kicked penalties from 20, 47 and 38 metres in the first half-hour. Bridgend, so limited from set-pieces, were at their most dangerous from turnover ball and maximised such an opportunity in the 26th minute. As the ball popped out of a Cardiff ruck, wing Matthew Hutchings pounced on it, raced up the right touchline, found Ieuan Dobbs and Stephens on the inside, and scrum-half Nicky Griffiths was on hand for the final run-in. Jones’ conversion meant a seven-pointer from nowhere and a 10-9 lead for the Ravens.
Cardiff’s quick response was crucial. Evans kicked his fourth goal, again from 38 metres, and then great running by Isaacs received willing support from Gareth Gravell and Richard Jones and the outstretched arm of Powell completed the touchdown. Another Evans penalty from 40 metres immediately after the interval set up that 20-10 gap. But now overwhelming territorial advantage failed to be converted into points. Living off scraps and on their back feet. Bridgend edged back into the game from rare visits to Cardiff’s half. Jones kicked his 44th minute penalty, badly missed with another, before full-back Gareth David chipped over a dropped goal off advantage ball. 20-16 with still 20 minutes left…and still no more points on the board despite the game camping in Bridgend’s 22. Finally, after yet more close range scrums, lineouts and rucks produced nothing, Evans dropped a goal of his own. Protracted injury time gave Bridgend a last opportunity to rescue the match with a converted try of their own. It never came
against a water-tight defence. The last tackle of all, appropriately, came from Scott Roberts.
At the final whistle Blue and Blacks players, coaches and travelling supporters were as one. The Millennium Stadium and the Drovers of Llandovery await. It should be quite an occasion.