Toulouse kept up the intriguing race for Pool Five domination alive on Saturday with a gritty 23-7 home win over Cardiff Blues.
Toulouse kept up the intriguing race for Heineken Cup Pool Five domination alive on Saturday with a gritty 23-7 home win over Cardiff Blues.
The visitors weathered an early storm from the hosts, for whom Fred Michalak and Clement Poitrenaud in particular showed much of their form of a bygone era, and were surprisingly only a point behind at the break after a brilliant try from prop Taufa'ao Filise.
Out came the French in the second half with a less flamboyant but more balanced and effective methodology for the match and Michalak made it safe with a pair of penalties and a drop goal in a juddery second half.
On a freezing cold day in Toulouse, the sides served up a first half of rugby that warmed the digits of the near-full house in attendance. As well as the close-quarter skirmishes that lacked for nothing in terms of either control or aggression, there were pulse-quickening moments from the Toulouse backs.
Poitrenaud in particular ran the Blues ragged with three breaks of over 50m, all of them from his own 22. After the second, Sam Norton-Knight finally wised up and stopped kicking down the middle but it dulled Cardiff's territorial attacking edge and Toulouse found more time and space in which to calmly work their way to victory.
The third break, with five minutes to go, earned Toulouse a 5m scrum from which the black-clad pack marched the pinks of Cardiff inexorably towards their own line
Michalak was also in his element, with referee Alan Lewis guaranteeing both teams good clean ball by setting his stall out to punish ruck transgressors belligerently early on. The mercurial Frenchman struggles with size at fly-half in the modern game of behemoths, but were he to focus on scrum-half – and both Byron Kelleher and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde are in the twilights of their careers – you'd think on this form he might have a renaissance. The service was zippy, the willingness to have a look and a go always bubbling under the surface, the speed of old is still there.
He made two telling breaks as well, both of which buffered his confidence enough that he missed only one of his stabs at goal. That ended up the telling statistic at the end of a second half markedly slower in pace and more clinical than the first.
Dai Young's men were on the back foot as early as the 12th minute when Martyn Williams conceded a penalty, forcing Lewis to warn the visitors about their discipline.
Kicking scrum-half Michalak made no mistake from close-range but worse was to follow immediately from the re-start when Tito was sin-binned for failing to roll away as Lewis' warning had failed to be heeded.
The task of facing Toulouse in their own back-yard was daunting enough but now with a numerical disadvantage, the writing was on the ball.
In Tito's absence, the stubborn Blues clung on for dear life with Powell and Williams putting their bodies on the line to keep the rampant hosts at bay.
The onslaught continued and it was no surprise when Toulouse breached the visitors' defence.
Tito returned from the cooler but Michalak's close-range quick tap caught the Blues cold and despite Xavier Rush's initial attempts, Dusautoir crashed over.
Michalak struck the left-hand upright as the pressure increased on the Blues.
But, after what seemed like an eternity, the visitors finally gained possession and the under-fire Sam Norton-Knight produced a moment of brilliance to assist Filise's for a try against the run of play.
The fly-half has endured a miserable start to his career in the Welsh capital but the Australian fended off prop Jean-Baptiste Poux, showed a wonderful burst of pace to leave Dusautoir trailing in his wake and then flicked a superb reverse pass to allow Filise to power over from the 22.
Blair converted but missed the chance to hand Young's men the lead when lock Patricio Albacete was yellow carded for killing the ball as the Blues trooped off in good spirits with a one-point deficit.
But all the effort from the opening period was ruined by Powell's madness when he became the third player sin-binned for putting his right shoulder into Clement Poitrenaud.
The Blues failed to recover as Michalak punished them with his second penalty and then a drop goal after 54 minutes for a 14-7 lead.
Three further penalties from the France half-back proved to be the final nails in the coffin.
Pens: Michalak 5
Drop goal: Michalak
For Cardiff Blues:
Yellow cards: Tito (Cardiff Blues, 14, repeated infringement), Albacete (Toulouse, 36, killing the ball), Powell (Cardiff Blues, 46, late tackle)
Toulouse:15 ClÃ©ment Poitrenaud, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Yves Donguy, 10 David Skrela, 9 FrÃ©dÃ©ric Michalak, 8 Louis Picamoles , 7 Thierry Dusautoir, 6 Jean Bouilhou, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Benoit Lecouls, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Virgile Lacombe, 17 Census Johnston, 18 Daan Human, 19 Shaun Sowerby, 20 Romain Millo-Chluski, 21 Maxime Medard, 22 CÃ©dric Heymans, 23 Nicolas Bezy,
Cardiff Blues: 15 Ben Blair, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Richard Mustoe, 10 Sam Norton-Knight, 9 Gareth Cooper, 8 Xavier Rush, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Andy Powell, 5 Paul Tito (c), 4 Deiniol Jones, 3 Taufa'ao Filise, 2 Gareth Williams, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 T. Rhys Thomas, 17 Sam Hobbs, 18 Gary Powell, 19 Scott Morgan, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Ceri Sweeney, 23 Gareth Thomas.
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Dudley Philips (Ireland), Darragh McCormack (Ireland)
Television match official: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)