Cardiff Rugby’s European Challenge Cup adventure came to an end in Italy as Dai Young’s side were beaten 27-23 by Benetton Rugby.
In a tight quarter-final encounter played in heavy rain for long periods, tries from Thomas Young and Mason Grady and the boot of Rhys Priestland had given Cardiff every chance of victory.Grady’s second-half effort was superb.
The Blue and Blacks, wearing red in this game, pushed hard for victory in the final stages but came up just short despite Priestland’s fine kicking. Benetton scored three tries to Cardiff’s two to edge home.
Cardiff had reached the last-eight stage with an emotionally-charged victory over Sale Sharks last weekend as they paid tribute to late Life President Peter Thomas with a win.
Cardiff made a superb start at a sold-out Stadio di Monigo. After just 30 seconds, captain Josh Turnbull got over the ball to win a penalty after Seb Negri carried into contact. Fly-half Priestland slotted the kick to make it 3-0.
Benetton looked for an immediate response but a strong tackle from Taulupe Faletau and a Young turnover relieved the pressure.
Jacob Umaga levelled up the scores with three points after Liam Belcher was penalised. A cross-kick attempt from Priestland then went out on the full.
Benetton looked dangerous in attack with Italy centre Tommaso Menoncello a real threat. Umaga kicked a second home penalty as the rain started to fall.
Cardiff were having to work incredibly hard in defence and dnother Italian attack saw Benetton scythe through the Cardiff defence. Teddy Williams made a crucial tackle, but he was penalised by referee Luke Pearce for not rolling away from the breakdown.
Williams was yellow carded. With Cardiff down to 14, Benetton attacked from a scrum and then a quick tap penalty. A try for Edoardo Padovani out wide looked certain, but he dropped the ball.
The pressure on the Cardiff defence was huge as they conceded back-to-back penalties for offside and it eventually proved too much.
Juan Ignacio Brex found Umaga whose pass sent full-back Rhyno Smith to the line. Umaga added the extras to leave Cardiff 13-3 behind.
Two runs from Wales wing Josh Adams formed part of a long period of Cardiff possession as Williams returned to the pitch with the deficit still at 10 points.
Cardiff and Priestland were clearly trying to play with width in attack. But the wet conditions meant both teams made errors as they looked to spread the ball.
Then, out of nowhere, Cardiff came up trumps with a try. Scrum-half Tomos Williams, who had seen one of his earlier passes intercepted, created something from nothing.
He kicked ahead from a scrum. Owen Lane chased and tried to collect. Although Lane failed, the ball went backwards. Young was in support to score and the try was given by the TMO. Priestland’s touchline conversion was perfect and followed by a missed penalty from Umaga.
Soon after scoring, Young was forced off for a blood injury and replaced by James Ratti. Adams also suffered a knock but carried on as Cardiff trailed 13-10 at the break with the game in the balance.
Priestland’s second penalty at the start of the second half tied the scores and Benetton immediately decided to make a string of forward replacements.
In the 47th minute, Cardiff grabbed their second and it was a moment of genius from Grady. Just when his team needed some brilliance, Grady delivered it with a superb solo run.
On and on Grady went, showing pace and power and not needing Adams outside him to score. It was a sensational try from the 21-year-old centre who made his international debut for Wales in the Six Nations. Priestland converted expertly once again to boos from the Italian crowd.
With Young back on the field, Cardiff were now seven points to the good but that lead was soon eradicated by Benetton’s Italy captain Michele Lamaro. Hooker Kristian Dacey made his 200th club appearance when he appeared from the bench alongside Lopeti Timani.
The nerveless Priestland kicked three more points with a monster long-range penalty to inch Cardiff back ahead. Both teams knew the game was now on a knife-edge.
Benetton then came up with the crucial score. Decoy runners gave Smith space and Marcus Watson collected the pass at the second attempt to dive over in the corner. The conversion was good.
Trailing by four, Cardiff needed a try and went straight on the attack. Priestland kicked to the corner and a Welsh line-out featuring several backs was set-up.
The drive went forwards but then went to ground and Benetton were given the scrum. It was a key moment.
Cardiff still ploughed away in the final few minutes and as the clock went into the red in search of a last-gasp victory but it was not to be as Cardiff were penalised for a neck roll