Cardiff Rugby 12 - 16 Connacht
HT 7-6
Sat 17 February 17:15 Cardiff Arms Park Ref: Andrea Piardi United Rugby Championship

Cardiff 12-16 Connacht

Sat 17 Feb 2024 19:00 Cardiff 12-16 Connacht

Cardiff Rugby produced a heroic display in defeat after having Rey Lee Lo sent off just 14 minutes into this BKT URC clash in front of a sell-out 12,000 crowd at the Arms Park.

Despite then being reduced to 13 men following a yellow card to Lopeti Timani, they still managed to lead 7-6 at the interval thanks to a well taken try from centre Ben Thomas.

They extended their advantage soon after the break when No 8 Timani touched down straight after his return from the sin bin.

At that point, the unlikeliest of victories seemed on the cards, but it wasn’t to be with Connacht replacement prop Peter Dooley scoring what proved to be the winning score.

Cardiff can however take much credit for their brave performance and they also pick up a bonus point, their eighth of the season.

No team has accumulated more of them in the URC this term, a reflection of how many tight contests they have been involved in.

On the individual front, Thomas Young was outstanding on the openside front, while Wales squad member Mackenzie Martin made a big impact alongside him in the back row.

Ben Thomas also had a fine game at No 12, preventing a try as well as scoring one, while hooker Liam Belcher led by example as skipper.

Before kick-off, there was a moving tribute to Wales and Lions legend Barry John who passed away at the age of 79 earlier this month.

Members of his family and former team-mates lined up in tribute to the fly-half great, with a minute’s silence being followed by a minute’s applause, while Sir Gareth Edwards laid out a jersey in memory of his long-time half-back partner.

Known throughout the game as ‘The King’, John made 93 appearances for Cardiff from 1967 to 1972, scoring 24 tries and 30 dropped goals.

Fittingly, there was a bumper crowd in attendance to share in showing their respects, amid another 12,000 full house, following on from the Dragons and Harlequins matches.

It was the annual regional clubs day at the Arms Park, with some 3,700 tickets having been issued to the 47 community clubs attending, while there was a huge parade of junior players around the pitch at half-time.

In a further nod to the grassroots game, all the Cardiff players wore the socks of the clubs where their rugby journeys began as part of the URC Origin rounds.

When the match got underway in pouring rain, it was Connacht who opened the scoring on five minutes through the boot of former Dragons fly-half JJ Hanrahan.

Then came the red card for centre Lee Lo as he made head on head contact with winger Shayne Bolton in going to make a tackle.

That was soon followed by the departure of blindside flanker Ben Donnell, who was making his debut after signing from Gloucester earlier in the week. He was replaced in the back row by Mackenzie Martin, who had been released from Wales squad duty along with lock Seb Davies.

Despite being down a man, Cardiff actually took the upper hand and went in front through the try from Ben Thomas midway through the half.

Flanker Thomas had earned a five metre scrum through chasing his own grubber kick and dragging Bolton’s replacement Tom Farrell over the try line.

From the attacking scrum, there were a succession of forward carries up to the whitewash before scrum-half Ellis Bevan sent out a long pass to Thomas.

It was then all down to a classy finish from the centre, who threw a dummy which two defenders bought and stepped inside to touch down, with Tinus de Beer adding the conversion.

The hosts continued to apply the pressure and looked to have scored a second try on 24 minutes.

After Belcher pounced on an overthrow at a defensive Connacht lineout, there were a further succession of rumbles from the pack culminating in Young burrowing over.

Italian referee Andrea Piardi initially awarded the try, but then opted to check on the big screen and ruled there had been a forward pass in the build-up, seemingly when Young took the ball off Belcher.

In the closing stages of the half, the visitors started to come into the game more.

A break from flanker Cian Prendergast threatened a score, but supporting wing Andrew Smith was brought down by Jacob Beetham with the excellent Young pouncing on the resulting loose ball.

Cardiff’s task was made even tougher four minutes before the break when No 8 Lopeti Timani was yellow carded for a high tackle on Caolin Blade, reducing them to 13 men.

Somehow, they still managed to deny the visitors a try, Ben Thomas holding the ball up over the line, ahead of the half ending with Hanrahan landing a penalty to reduce the deficit to a point.

On the resumption, Cardiff not only survived but dictated the remainder of the period where there were down two men.

Then as soon as Timani returned, he made an immediate impact, diving over in the corner off a powerful lineout maul drive.

However, Connacht’s continuing numerical advantage gradually told as the half wore on and they finally turned pressure into points just after the hour mark when replacement loosehead Dooley forced his way over from close range, with Hanrahan slotting the conversion to secure the lead.

As hard as Cardiff strained to get back in front, they just couldn’t set up the potential winning moment.

Once again, it was to be the narrowest of defeats, but they gave it everything in adversity.