Cross Keys 20 Cardiff 13
THE odds on there being a nervy finale would have been lengthy when Cross Keys headed to the changing rooms with a healthy lead after enjoying first-half dominance.
The hosts were 20-0 up and a bonus point win seemed inevitable – but in the end there were sighs of relief after a spirited Cardiff comeback fell short.
It was an entertaining game in which both sides enjoyed 40 minutes of dominance and in which both sides were hindered by a lack of composure.
The hosts would have been even further ahead at half-time had they taken all of the openings they created while the visitors could have earned a tremendous fightback victory had they grasped the chances they made when Keys were on the ropes.
Ultimately the Pandy Park outfit were good value for a win that means they sit in fourth place while the Premiership takes a break and the British and Irish Cup begins.
And head coach Greg Woods was delighted that his charges dug deep for victory given the makeshift nature of their team, with three hookers starting in their pack and scrum-half Jonathan Lewis playing left wing from the 16th minute.
“We won with a patched-up side so I am delighted,” said Woods. “The first half was excellent and the way that we dug in when Cardiff came back at us was superb.
“It would have been easy to fold but the boys showed real spirit in defence and closed the game out. That was four hard-earned points.”
When the teams headed to the changing rooms at half-time the odds of Keys having to nervously kill the final few minutes would have been lengthy.
The hosts hammered Cardiff in the first half with a physical and direct display – they ran hard, had the edge at the set piece and battered their visitors at the breakdown.
A 20-point lead was reward for such dominance but it could have been even more were it not for some poor decision making.
Keys had already blown two golden openings by the time that lock Dan Hodge crashed over for the first try after seven minutes.
Their total dominance was evidenced by the fact that it wasn't until the 30th minute and the ninth scrum of the encounter that home number nine Ryan James had to put the ball in – Cardiff just hadn't had the ball to make any handling errors.
The chances kept coming but the hosts kept wasting them and it was farcical that they only enjoyed a seven-point advantage approaching half-time.
However, a rapid burst ensured they headed off the pitch with a spring in their step at the break.
Dean Gunter knocked over a penalty on 36 minutes and then Keys took advantage of a yellow card for Cardiff full-back Sion Hopkins (for killing the ball close to his line) to cross twice in injury time.
First Hodge barged over from close range after a drive from a five-metre lineout and then Lewis darted over after a terrific counter-attack.
Wing Nathan Trowbridge was the man that provided the assist but the move started with a tremendous carry by Jamie Sollis.
The blindside flanker enjoyed a terrific afternoon, making plenty of yards with ball in hand and causing mayhem at the breakdown.
It was his good, honest grunt that enabled fellow hooker-turned-flanker Gerwyn Price to roam free and do more flashy carrying, though Keys do miss the out-and-out openside play of suspended captain Rob Nash.
When the hosts headed back out for the second half it seemed that it would be a matter of time before they crossed for their bonus point try.
But Cardiff, who made four changes at the break, came out with a steel that was sorely missing in the first half.
They were on the scoreboard when fly-half Joe Griffin knocked over a penalty on 45 minutes with that offence seeing Keys winger Nathan Trowbridge sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on.
The Blue and Blacks were suddenly blowing holes in the home defence and showed patience in attack to cross for their first try, wing Steve Cullen in acres of space down the right on 55 minutes.
They were going down the slope and, mysteriously, were just as dominant as Keys had been in the first half.
Centre Cory Allen dived over to make it 20-13 on the hour and it was hard to see how the Pandy Park outfit could stop the rot.
With a touch more composure Cardiff, who suddenly had the upper hand in terms of territory, possession and toughness, could have levelled the scores.
Keys were nervy – evidenced by head coach Woods going on a stroll to stand alone at the end of the pitch – but to their credit they clung on in there.
They closed the game out well and could even have notched a bonus point only for an impressive maul to stop just short of the line.
But in the end Keys were more than happy to take four points from a topsy-turvy encounter.