Cardiff may have fallen to a 39-7 defeat to reigning European champions Toulouse but they could walk off the Arms Park pitch with their heads held high following a hugely admirable effort.
The Blue and Blacks went into the encounter in disarray after events in South Africa saw 48 employees, including 32 players, locked in quarantine.
Only last night did the final contingent land back in the UK and a further 10 players were ruled out due to injury or suspension.
With director of rugby Dai Young in isolation, Gruff Rees led a “misfit” group which included 11 debutants, stocked with academy starlets and several semi-professionals.
While the heart hoped for a monumental upset, the like of which would have Hollywood purring, just fulfilling the fixture was a source of immense proud for all associated with the club.
Each and every player in Blue and Black refused to take a backwards step and threw caution to the wind but there was only one winner as the reigning French and European champions were inspired to victory by World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont.
Cardiff even got the first try thanks to Josh Adams but thereafter Toulouse took control and led 20-7 following their own scores through Anthony Jelonch and Pita Akhi.
Despite the Blue and Blacks spited efforts, and they enjoyed several chances, the pressure told in the second half as Heineken Star of the Game Antoine Dupont, Arthur Bonneval and Joe Tekori all crossed to put the result beyond doubt.
Not that the 10,007 Arms Park crowd cared, as they gave Cardiff unrelenting energy and applause for a phenomenal effort in unprecedented adversity.
With the bulk of Cardiff’s quarantined players and staff due to leave quarantine on Tuesday, it is unlikely many, if any, will bolster their ranks and they now face Harlequins at the Stoop in Round Two.
It was the holders who got the European season underway in front of a rapturous Cardiff Arms Park atmosphere.
And it didn’t take long until the emotions spilled over on the field as the aggressive home defence matched the vocal home crowd, forcing numerous errors by the visitors.
However, after seven minutes of action, French international Romain Ntamack opened the scoring with a straightforward penalty effort, after the pack won a scrum penalty against the head.
With some of the class of 1996’s inaugural final watching on from the stands, the home side didn’t dwell, producing their first attacking opportunity after Ellis Jenkins forced the turnover from the restart.
A Jacob Beetham kick through found its way to the chasing Dan Fish, who volleyed ahead and forced Maxime Medard behind his own try line. However, referee Karl Dickson brought play back for after the wing had strayed offside.
However, it was the defending champions who continued to dominate the proceedings on the whole, with Ntamack doubling his tally after a quarter of an hour of play.
The hosts, with a total of 42 players unavailable, showed plenty of attacking endeavour and initiative, with plenty of tricks up their sleeves to cause problems for the five-time European champions.
A clever kick by Halaholo, with young Theo Cabango on the chase, pinned the opposition back, forcing them to concede a scrum on their own five meter line.
The fired-up Halaholo trucked it up from the first phase of the scrum, and the space quickly opened in midfield, allowing British and Irish Lion Adams to slide in, sending the Cardiff crowd into dreamland as the Blue and Blacks took the lead.
However, the lead was short-lived as Toulouse pounced back in fashion, with World Player of the Year, Antoine Dupont, the instigator. The scrum half sliced through the midfield, before patiently awaiting support from his half back partner, Ntamack.
A smart offload by the outside half released Anthony Jelonch, who slid in under the posts.
Gruff Rees’ side also showed plenty of guts in defence, halting Toulouse’s driving line-out on multiple occasions, and continuing to make things difficult for the reigning champions.
A darting surge by debutant Cabango injected momentum into the hosts, putting the Arms Park crowd on the edge of their seats.
However, once again it was Dupont who sparked Toulouse’s second try, at the end of an admirable half from the hosts. His hand-off brushed off Jason Tovey’s challenge, and despite a superb cover tackle from Dan Fish, the wing only delayed the inevitable.
The ball was shipped wide, where there were plenty of numbers waiting, and despite a courageous charge from Cabango, he was unable to stop Pita Akhi from dotting down, giving the visitors a 20-7 lead at the interval.
The Blue and Blacks came within meters of a sensational start to the second half, as skipper Ellis Jenkins intercepted in midfield. He was taken down just short of the whitewash and his offload was deflected, allowing Toulouse to clear their lines.
The hosts, backed by an incredible home support, continued to make it difficult and the French outfit became visibly frustrated.
As legs began to tire, the match broke out into a relentless, end-to-end but blockbusting game of rugby, with both sides putting on a spectacle for the sold out Arms Park crowd.
However, a lucky bounce of the ball, followed by some individual magic, allowed Toulouse to strike against the run of play for their third of the evening. Dupont this time turned scorer, beating three defenders to run in from outside the 22 for a spectacular effort.
With the hosts refusing to go out without a fight, fan favourite Dan Fish did his best to get his side back into it, breaking clear down the left. However, the visitors were able to force a crucial turnover on the edge of the 22.
Every player departure was met with a standing ovation by the CAP faithful, who showed full appreciation to the players for playing their part in a spectacle, considering the circumstances at hand.
Despite Olly Robinson’s midfield turnover, Toulouse regained possession immediately, allowing Dupont’s cross-field to land in Arthur Bonneval’s hands, gifting the wing with a bonus point score.
A powerful carry by Botham was rewarded with a penalty advantage, and while Adams was beaten to the chase by Bonneval, play was brought back and Tovey found the corner.
After going through the phases deep in the 22, Cardiff RFC hooker Evan Yardley was cruelly denied a try as Dickson blew for a Toulouse penalty.
As Toulouse gathered momentum, hunting a fifth try, scrum half Williams heroically dived to intercept and offloaded to Tovey. It was two against two, with Adams providing the support, but the Lion couldn’t keep hold of Tovey’s pass.
Jacob Beetham was shown a red card in the closing stages, following an unfortunate high tackle, which blemished an impressive debut. Toulouse kicked to the corner and Joe Tekori rumbled over.
There were further chances at the death for Cardiff but they were unable to finish the game on a high and now travel to face English champions Harlequins in Round Two.